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What is a Carpetbagger?

Lindsay Brinkmann, Brian Muhammad
  • Author
    Lindsay Brinkmann

    Lindsay has taught high school and middle school history for the last 17 years. She has an undergraduate degree in History and English and a master's degree in Educational Leadership. She has also completed an Educational specialist degree in curriculum and instruction, and will have a doctorate in curriculum and assessment.

  • Instructor
    Brian Muhammad
What is a Carpetbagger? Who were the Carpetbaggers? Learn about Carpetbaggers and Scalawags. Read about the role Carpetbaggers played in Reconstruction. Updated: 07/21/2021

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What is a Carpetbagger?

Historical Context

April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union; the U.S. Civil War was over. The bitter Civil War in the United States left the country physically destroyed. The period of Reconstruction (1865-1877) began with a focus on putting the country back together again politically, economically, and physically. One of the primary problems the former Confederate States faced was the financial ruin the war had left them. The post-war years in the south provided many Americans with an opportunity to benefit from the financial reconstruction of the south.

The Rail Splitter Repairing the Union, Joseph E. Baker, 1865

Lincoln and Johnson Reconstruction

Who were the Carpetbaggers?

A Carpetbagger was a slang term for northerners who, after the war was over, moved to the south to take economic advantage of the reconstructing south. Carpetbaggers got their name from their large carpetbags that they packed containing all of their belongings. Many Carpetbaggers were able to buy land in the south because former plantation owners no longer had a workforce to tend the lands. Carpetbaggers viewed themselves as saviors of the struggling south; moving to the war-torn region to aid in its rebuilding.

  • Carpetbaggers typically were supporters of the Republican Party,
  • Frequently Carpetbaggers supported legislation that promoted racial equality for newly-freed men,
  • Carpetbaggers began a variety of different businesses in the south, from banking to newspapers

Examples of Carpetbagging Practices

Economic Opportunists

Carpetbaggers moved to the south to take advantage of the cheap land and business that were being sold by southerners. Carpetbaggers were able to buy property and businesses cheaply because southerners needed the money to pay Civil War debts; the Confederate States of America (CSA) had borrowed a great deal of money from citizens but could not pay any of it back. Carpetbaggers were able to capitalize on southerners' economic troubles and begin a new business. For example, Carpetbaggers were able to purchase southern land cheaply; frequently having to only pay the back taxes on the land which could be as low as $25.

Political Opportunists

After the war, southern states were required to be readmitted back into the Union. While the federal government worked on the readmission process, Carpetbaggers took political advantage of this time period. The federal government had banned former Confederate leaders and military from voting, which limited the political power of southern states. Carpetbaggers were able to vote and hold political office, unlike many southerners. As a result, many southern governments were controlled by Carpetbaggers who were able to maintain their position in southern governments due to the federal governments' restrictions on former Confederates.

Idealistic Americans

A final group of Carpetbaggers was made up of former Union soldiers, teachers, and members of the Freedman's Bureau. After the war, many former Union soldiers remained in the south rather than return to their homes in the north. Other Americans, such as teachers and Freedman's Bureau workers, moved to the south to aid newly freedmen. In 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (or the Freedman's Bureau) was created by Congress in an attempt to help reconstruction efforts of the south. Working with the Freedman's Bureau, many northerners moved to the south to help reconstruction efforts by building schools.

Carpetbaggers and Reconstruction

The Man with the (Carpet) Bags, Thomas Nast, 1872

The man with the bag

Carpetbaggers were not always welcomed by southerners. At first, Carpetbaggers were welcomed by southerners because they knew that, in order to revive their state's economy, northern money needed to come into the state. However, as more northerners moved to the south and were able to buy land and businesses, former wealthy southerners found their social standing in the south quickly changing. As reconstruction continued, southerners viewed Carpetbaggers as opportunistic northerners who were taking advantage of weakened southerners. Many Carpetbaggers were even targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, mainly because of their efforts in supporting racial equality in southern states.

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  • 0:04 Who Were Carpetbaggers?
  • 1:05 Motives of the Carpetbaggers
  • 1:56 A Mixed View
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Southern Newspaper Advertisement Warning Carpetbaggers, 1868

Ohio Carpetbagger Cartoon

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the opposite of a carpetbagger?

A carpetbagger is an individual that moved from the north to the south during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877). Today an individual that runs for political office in a region they are not normally from can be called a carpetbagger. The oppositive of a carpetbagger would be called a native.

What does it mean to be called a carpetbagger?

A carpetbagger was an individual who moved from the north to the south during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877). To be called a carpetbagger today is to indicate that an individual is not native to a region for which they are running for political office.

What is an example of a carpetbagger?

A carpetbagger is an individual that moved from the north to the south during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877). Many carpetbaggers were former Union soldiers, businessmen looking to start new businesses, or individuals working with the Freedman's Bureau. Carpetbaggers were able to buy up cheap southern land and businesses due to the economic problems of the former Confederacy.

What did the carpetbaggers do?

A carpetbagger was an individual that moved from the north to the south during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877). Once in the south, Carpetbaggers bought up cheap land and businesses. Sometimes carpetbaggers even took political office in southern states, because many former Confederates were prohibited from holding political office.

What is the difference between carpetbaggers and scalawags?

A carpetbagger is a northerner who moved to the south during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877) for economic, social, and sometimes political opportunities. A scalawag was a white southerner who supported the Republican Party during the period of Reconstruction.

Why are carpetbaggers called carpetbaggers?

A carpetbagger is an individual who moved from the north to the south during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877). To make this move, the individual would pack their belongings in a large bag, called a carpetbag.

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