|The 'scalawag' Jonas Wilkerson and his unnamed accomplice|
in 'Gone With the Wind'
The Confederacy and its murderous offspring, the Civil War, produced a lot of phrases that remain with us even today. Terms like "carpetbagger" -- which today is the dismissive phrase for any opportunistic outsider who exploits local misfortunes for the personal benefit -- and "scalawag" (which we think of as just a nogoodnik) came out of the South during Reconstruction. And they were both used to disguise the ill intent of the violent racial terrorists who seized control of the South during this period.
And again ...
The word "scalawag", originally referring to low-grade farm animals, was adopted by their opponents to refer to Southern whites who formed a Republican coalition with black freedmen and Northern newcomers (called carpetbaggers) to take control of their state and local governments. Among the earliest uses in this new meaning were references in Alabama and Georgia newspapers in the summer of 1867, first referring to all southern Republicans, then later restricting it to only White ones.The problem is that these were Southern terms for the people who came to institute postwar reform in their territories -- that is, they descriptors of the very people they hated perhaps even more than freed black people themselves. The terms were specifically eliminationist in nature -- that is, intended to so deeply dehumanize their targets as to render them objects fit mainly for elimination. They became precursors to the unholy violence and viciousness that then descended upon postwar white reformers, mainly by way of creating permission for it.
|An anti-Freedmen's Bureau cartoon|
As Eric Foner explains:
... Most carpetbaggers probably combine the desire for personal gain with a commitment to taking part in an effort "to substitute the civilization of freedom for that of slavery". ... Carpetbaggers generally supported measures aimed at democratizing and modernizing the South – civil rights legislation, aid to economic development, the establishment of public school systems.Additionally, as Wikipedia explains:
... Many carpetbaggers were businessmen who purchased or leased plantations and became wealthy landowners, hiring freedmen to do the labor. Most were former Union soldiers eager to invest their savings in this promising new frontier, and civilians lured south by press reports of "the fabulous sums of money to be made in the South in raising cotton." Foner notes that "joined with the quest for profit, however, was a reforming spirit, a vision of themselves as agents of sectional reconciliation and the South's "economic regeneration." Accustomed to viewing Southerners—black and white—as devoid of economic initiative and self-discipline, they believed that only "Northern capital and energy" could bring "the blessings of a free labor system to the region."In addition to being hopelessly naive about the nature of the deep loathing to which they had unwittingly exposed themselves, there was indeed some corruption -- particularly when it came to handing out federal dollars, which was a problem throughout the Grant administration:
Gen. Milton S. Littlefield, was dubbed the "Prince of Carpetbaggers," and bought votes in the legislature "to support grandiose and fraudulent railroad schemes." Escott concludes that some Democrats were involved, but Republicans "bore the main responsibility for the issue of $28 million in state bonds for railroads and the accompanying corruption. This sum, enormous for the time, aroused great concern." Foner says Littlefield disbursed $200,000 (bribes) to win support in the legislature for state money for his railroads, and Democrats as well as Republicans were guilty of taking the bribes and making the decisions on the railroad.In the end, their greatest flaw was simply a naivete about the depth of the federal government's commitment to the ideals of Reconstruction, which it turned out were not very deep. Especially not in the face of the campaign of terrorist violence that soon struck, targeting black voters, carpetbaggers, and scalawags alike. What followed was a fairly typical pattern: Local hostility would eventually drive the new plantation or other business owners into poverty and receivership, at which point the families that had originally operated the farms and businesses often wound up owning them again, plus the investments made by the Northerners.
And if they were educators or politicians, there was a pattern too: The carpetbaggers would meet serious physical threats to their well-beings or that of their families, or the schools in which they taught would be burned to the ground. If they organized black voters or taught freed slaves how to read but were white, they would usually be beaten and warned to leave. Repeat offenses resulted in lynching -- which was often the fate of any black man caught engaged in these activities.
Allen P. Huggin was a typical carpetbagger -- an educator whose mission was to organize schools for rural black children and freed slaves. Stephen Budiansky describes what happened to him in his great book, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomatox:
Most people fled such circumstances, and indeed Huggins did. But the legacy of that night would live on -- in classically twisted Confederate fashion.The terror began almost as soon as the Civil War ended in 1865; it lasted until 1876, when the last of the governments of the Southern states freely elected through universal manhood suffrage was toppled in a well-orchestrated campaign of violence, fraud, and intimidation—thereby putting an end to Reconstruction, erasing the freedmen’s newly won political rights, and securing white conservative home rule to the South for a hundred years to come.
In some ways the small incident in question was no different from thousands of others like it that took place in those years. At ten o’clock on the night of March 9, 1871, a band of one hundred and twenty men on horseback, disguised, heavily armed, even their horses cloaked in white sheets to conceal any identifiable markings, surrounded the house of one George R. Ross deep in the river-cut country southeast of the town of Aberdeen in Monroe County, Mississippi. Allen P. Huggins, a Northern man who had settled in Mississippi after the war, was staying the night there, and he was awakened by a loud voice calling upon Ross to bring out “the man who was in the house.”
Huggins looked out the window and, by the bright moonlight, saw the porch crowded with men in white hoods and robes. They told him that, unless he came out to receive their “warning,” they would burn the place down.
Ross—“a good, respectable Democrat”—pleaded with Huggins to do as they asked and spare his frightened wife and children. So after securing a promise that “not a hair of your head shall be injured,” Huggins agreed to go down to the gate to hear what the men had come to tell him. It was just this. The men—whom Huggins would later describe as “gentlemanly fellows, men of cultivation, well educated, a much different class of men than I ever supposed I would meet in a Ku-Klux gang”—did not like his “radical ways,” they said. As superintendent of schools for the county, Huggins had instituted public schooling, was trying to “educate the negroes,” they said. They had stood it just as long as they were going to. Now he had ten days to leave—leave the county, leave the state altogether—or be killed.
Huggins replied that he would go when he was good and ready to go.
So the men marched him down the road, and when they reached a small hill a quarter of a mile away, one of them came toward him from where the horses were being held, and in his hand was a stout stirrup leather. And without any further ceremony, he began beating Huggins with the stirrup, with all his might.
Then the men took turns, each eager to get their licks in. “They said they all wanted to get a chance at me,” Huggins recalled afterward, “that I was stubborn, and just such a man as they liked to pound.” Counting aloud each stroke, they stopped after twenty-five and again asked him if he would leave and again he refused; and so after fifty, and so after seventy-five, until he was left senseless, more dead than alive. When he came to, the men trained their pistols on him and repeated their warning that if any of them laid eyes upon him in ten days’ time, he was a dead man.
Confederate Heritage Month:
Day 1: Strange Fruit
It Was About Slavery
That Peculiar Institution
How Poor Whites Got Suckered
The First American War Criminals
'The River Was Dyed'
War By Other Means