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The Good Intentions of the Carpetbaggers

Guest Author - Rebecca Graf

Yet many carpetbaggers looked to improve positions in the South. One of the greatest needs was education of the black community. Education was not completely absent in a slave’s life though it was rare and mostly done in secret. Some slave owners taught their house slaves while others refused to give them even the ability to read the Bible though the slaves were instructed to follow all Biblical principles. During the war, slaves were taught by the Union soldiers in the camps they worked in or lived in as soldiers themselves. It was the after the war that carpetbaggers found a way to help rebuild the South in a way that had long lasting effects in a positive light.

The black community had a chance to enter society at many levels, but it would take basic education to help them completely do so. Many of the carpetbaggers that entered the war-torn South were from “Northern aid societies come down to help create schools” with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau which gave funds to help set them up. The women who were the carpetbaggers gave aid to help the children fresh out of slavery to learn to read and write and lay the foundation for generations who would grace the halls of Congress and beyond.

Carpetbaggers was a term originally designed to describe the Northerners who moved with luggage made out of used carpet pieces. The thousands that moved south consisted of men and women from various backgrounds though most were well-educated and sought to help the South rebuild while making a new life for themselves. Like with any movement, the thousands made the move with mixed reasons. Some made sacrifices to help those devastated by the war. Others made the move for financial and power gains.

Those that entered the South for personal gain and ambition left a sour taste in the mouths of most Southerners, even the corrupt ones. They betrayed many to get into a position of power including the former slaves who looked to them as help to ease into a society that had no desire for them. It was not uncommon for them to get blacks to support them politically and then turn on them. It was also the actions of the carpetbaggers that ignited the violent tendencies of the KKK. The term was never used with a good flavor, and today it is used in a negative connotation with politicians who move to districts just to get elected.

Yet not all carpetbaggers hurt the South. Many took up their carpetbags to help the South, and that they did. Many did enter politics and helped the black communities get a stronghold and get more freedom than they would have otherwise though it was still small and would remain so for close to another hundred years. Others helped to educate the community. And others did not directly help the blacks but the South overall by investing in railroads and manufacturing which was sorely needed.

Though always used in a negative light, the term ‘carpetbagger’ also represented many who did good by the South and the newly freed slaves. They were the ones who have gone unsung throughout most of history as the more corrupt carpetbaggers claimed the spotlight.


Bergeron, Paul H.. Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011.
“Carpetbagger.” Merriam-Webster. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/carpetbagger.
“Carpetbaggers and Scalawags.” Boundless. https://www.boundless.com/u-s-history/reconstruction-1865-1877/the-reconstructed-south/carpetbaggers-and-scalawags/.
Foner, Eric. “Q&A: Schools and Education During Reconstruction.” PBS.org. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/reconstruction/schools/sf_postwar.html.
“Free Labor to Slave Labor, America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War.” Digital History. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/exhibits/ reconstruction/section3/section3_intro.html.
Hume, Richard L. and Jerry B. Gough. Blacks, Carpetbaggers, and Scalawags: the Constitutional Conventions of Radical Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2008.
“King Cotton.” Civilwarhome.com. http://www.civilwarhome.com/kingcotton.htm.
King, David C.. Civil War and Reconstruction. Hoboken: J. Wiley, 2003.
“Reconstruction,” University of West Georgia, http://www.westga.edu/~hgoodson/Reconstruction.htm.
“Reconstruction in the South: Carpetbaggers and Scalawags.” Texas Digital Library. http://tdl.org/txlor-dspace/bitstream/handle/2249.3/624/06_recon_south.htm.
Richardson, Heather Cox. Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
"The Ku Klux Klan, 1868". EyeWitness to History. www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2006).
Tunnell, Ted. “Creating the Propaganda of History: Southern Editors and the Origins of “Carpetbagger” and Scalawag..”. Journal of Southern History 72. no. 4. November 2006.

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Content copyright © 2015 by Rebecca Graf. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Rebecca Graf. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact BellaOnline Administration for details.


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