Origins of the Carpetbagger

By Thomas Nast — [1], Public Domain,

Many terms have come to us down throughout history and have been adopted to more modern usage. During that time, the original meaning becomes lost. One such word was “carpetbagger”. According to Miriam-Webster Dictionary, today a carpetbagger is “a political candidate who runs for office in a place where he or she has lived only for a short time.” That was not how the name came about.

It originated during the Reconstruction period of American history. After the civil war, the term was created to describe a “person from the northern United States who went to the South after the American Civil War to make money.” The term has been used as a negative means to describe many that moved to the South, but though money was the intention many carpetbaggers did venture into the war-torn South with good hearts. Coming for different reasons to the war-torn South, Northern carpetbaggers forever changed the Southern landscape of politics, economics, and society. They picked up their carpetbags for personal gratification and for altruistic reasons.

The term “carpetbagger” was created by a newspaper editor in the post-war South to describe the many people from the North who moved to the south to find financial boons. They carried bags made out of carpet pieces which were abundant. As the war had torn up resources and availability, carpets had been made into suitcases to help people travel about the war-torn country. Many homes had been devastated during the war, and the carpet was available. It also came from the number of carpet factories without buyers to purchase the products. The carpet was then used to make bags. Those traveling during that time snatched up the bags as they were affordable and extremely useful. The sudden influx of people carrying these new bags drew attention to the fact that most were there for financial gain. Wherever those carrying bags were scene, a sense of distrust and corruption appeared.

The status of the country had changed during and after the war. The once regal South was now a charcoal shell with people moving about confused and anxious. Economics had changed drastically, and many people found themselves without money and nothing to make money with. For the Southerner, it was due to a large missing section of the labor force. They no longer had slaves to do their manual labor. The slaves did not have jobs anymore. This led to a “cycle of debt” that revealed “year by year the promise of economic independence” fading quickly. The freedom the slaves longed for was not as bright and beautiful as they had hoped. Paradise had a shadow over it.

For many in the North, they either found themselves without jobs or facing many opportunities to make more money from those in need in the Deep South. The war had negatively affected the entire country. Businessmen did not have their jobs anymore. Customers were not available. Money was scarce everywhere. The war had wiped out either the need for products. The future had changed. Businessmen though saw many an opportunity in the South. The South was basically starting over, and these businessmen thought they could help through both honest and not so honest ways. The door of opportunity had opened for them, and many did not let the chances escape without stepping through the door.

Others carrying the used carpet now as bags were former soldiers. For several years, many had fought only to return home with nothing and to find nothing. Life back home was not as glorious as they had once thought, or it had completely changed with death and life in a way they could no longer accept. The former soldiers had been in the South and knew the lay of the land as well as the opportunities that existed there. They had seen the bounty the land offered and the fact that it was starting over once again. The former soldiers returned to the lower half of the United States as well-educated “cotton planters, businessmen, teachers, lawyers, [and] physicians.” Some of them never even returned home. They remained in the area where they were when the war was declared over. The potential the South had to offer beckoned to them. It was that move that would later agitate the South and cause blood to flow.

Bergeron, Paul H.. Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011.

“Carpetbagger.” Merriam-Webster.

“Carpetbaggers and Scalawags.” Boundless.

Foner, Eric. “Q&A: Schools and Education During Reconstruction.”

“Free Labor to Slave Labor, America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War.” Digital History. 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.”

King, David C.. Civil War and Reconstruction. Hoboken: J. Wiley, 2003.

“Reconstruction,” University of West Georgia,

“Reconstruction in the South: Carpetbaggers and Scalawags.” Texas Digital Library.

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. (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.

Writer for ten years, lover of education, and degrees in business, history, and English. Striving to become a Renassiance woman.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store