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Scalawags in the Civil War: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The term 'scalawag' is a relic of the Reconstruction Era which followed the Civil War. Learn the definition of scalawags and the role they played in the South during Reconstruction. Updated: 05/06/2022


Interestingly, scalawag is still a popular derogatory term used in contemporary times. By definition, the term refers to the lowest of individuals - a scoundrel or someone who is equal to that of a swine. This is how southern Democrats felt about whites who attempted to strengthen the Republican Party in the South and forward their respective initiatives. Let's see if you agree with the negative consensus of the southern Democratic Party.

A Closer Look at Scalawags

We have a very basic definition of a scalawag, but let's take a closer look at who these individuals were and what they fought for. It is important to note that the term scalawag only gained notoriety during the Reconstruction Era. Very few references can be found regarding the term during the Civil War. So who were these individuals that were derided by southern Democrats?

Scalawags ensconced a multitude of disparate individuals: wealthy southern landowners (including James Longstreet, James Orr, and James Alcorn), displaced carpetbaggers (Northerners), former Whigs, poor southern whites, and southern farmers. The ultimate goal of all of these individuals was to strengthen the Republican Party within the South and forward the policies of Reconstruction in whichever way they saw fit. Many believed that the Republican Party was the party of progress by which equality could be reached. Reconstruction was also attractive because it offered a new beginning to the South as far as rebuilding a prosperous region.

Yet, strengthening the Republican Party and progressing Reconstruction were not the lone goals of the scalawags. Other scalawag objectives during Reconstruction included racial equality and advancement, promoting economic development, and strengthening the lower class to avoid another planter class takeover.

The scalawag group fought for the advancement of equality through a dominant Republican Party. Scalawags campaigned for southern states to pass the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to Black people. They pursued equality at the ballot box and integration within public facilities.

Scalawags who focused on the economy attempted to strengthen the Republican Party as its major agent through which new business could be developed. Scalawags looked to the party to bring in new rail systems, cotton mills, and machine technology in order to begin phasing out the plantation system.

Lower-class scalawags, who included mountain farmers and poor whites, simply wanted the Republican Party to prevent the powerful planter class from reassuming power in the South. Pre-Civil War southern policies typically favored the planter class. Poorer scalawags viewed Reconstruction and the strengthening of the Republican Party as a means of rebellion against the wealthy and hoped to benefit by acquiring small pieces of the planter class's land.

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