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Scalawags in the Civil War: Definition, Lesson & Quiz

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Taught by

Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

During the Reconstruction Era, those who attempted to alter the political landscape by strengthening the Republican Party in the South were labeled as 'scalawags' by southern Democrats. Learn more about the scalawags and their ultimate goals.

Introduction

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), black freedmen, 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.

Since the scalawag group was comprised of white and black people, most 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 blacks. 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.

Success or Failure?

The scalawags had a brief period of significant success during Reconstruction; however, we need to define success as an accomplishment for the greater good - not every scalawag achieved what they set out to support the Republican Party for. The economy took several years to boom following the war, class strife still occurred in the South, and blacks were treated as second-class citizens despite the passage of the Reconstruction amendments.

However, the major success of the scalawags was their infiltration into the southern political system and strengthening of the Republican Party. Thanks largely in part to the Reconstruction Act, scalawags gained power in the southern political arena due to the majority party's (Democrats') unwillingness to accept an iron clad oath to the Union as well as to pass the Fourteenth Amendment. Scalawags gained political clout in Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Three years after the end of the Civil War, new state constitutions were ratified and the Republican Party seized a majority of power in the South.

End of an Era

Nothing lasts forever, and so, by the 1870s, the scalawags abandoned the Republican Party in favor of the Democratic Redeemer coalition. The success of the Republican Party lasted for a brief period in the South following the Civil War, but most individuals decided to revert back to the Democratic Party. Some scalawags stayed with the Republican Party, but, by the end of the 1870s, these individuals were only a minority. The scalawags' achievements were notable, yet fleeting.

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