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What are Scalawags?

By Matt Brady
Updated Jan 21, 2024
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Scalawags were white American Southerners who politically supported and collaborated with the federal government during the Reconstruction era of the United States. Many scalawags took regional and local political offices in the South, taking advantage of the vacancies left by Confederate members whom the government barred from taking office. They made fast enemies with the large population of Southerners who were bitter over Reconstruction and the North's victory over the South. Those deriders, such as the Ku Klux Klan, adopted scalawag as a derogatory nickname; the term had previously been used to refer to bad livestock. Over time, scalawag became less of an insult and more of an ubiquitous political term.

After the Civil War, the Republican Party took up the mantle of Reconstruction efforts in the South. Former confederate members and supporters were barred from serving in government. Scalawags combined political forces with other pro-Reconstruction forces, such as the freedmen and carpetbaggers. Freedmen, as their name implies, were former black slaves. Carpetbaggers were Northerners who made the trek South to aid Reconstruction efforts. To Southerners who opposed Reconstruction, scalawags and carpetbaggers were different mutations of the same breed—opportunistic politicians who profited from the South's misfortunes.

Worse than being considered opportunistic, some scalawags were considered traitors by many in the South, particularly former Confederate members who voiced support for Reconstruction and the Union after the war. Anti-reconstruction groups such as the Ku Klux Klan considered the Southerners who aided Reconstruction to be guilty of collaborationism and quisling, terms synonymous with treasonous behavior. Some of those former Confederates were granted presidential pardons, and thus able to vie for political seats years before their Southern countrymen were able to. Certainly for such men, there was no other fate but to be considered traitors and turncoats by the fellow Southerners with whom they used to side. Confederate General James Longstreet was one such scalawag. Longstreet was a friend of Northern General Ulysses S. Grant prior to the Civil War, and used that friendship to restore his legitimacy after the war. He became a scalawag, earning him equal amounts of praise and scorn from a nation still divided.

As Reconstruction efforts came to an end in 1877, former Confederate members were once again allowed to vote and participate in government. Other political factions, such as the Democratic Redeemers, began to flex their political muscle and jostle for Republican-held seats. The reintegration of the South into American politics led to the decline of scalawag as a relevant political term.

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Discussion Comments
By umbra21 — On Oct 03, 2011

It's interesting that this term has such a specific meaning. In more British slang, it just means a naughty person, usually a boy who has been playing tricks on people.

But, perhaps the scalawags definition came from that original meaning. It doesn't have anywhere near the harsh meaning it seems to have here though.

Words do change over time though, so maybe it used to be a stronger word or used in different situations back before it was applied to scalawags during the civil war.

By KoiwiGal — On Oct 02, 2011

@irontoenail - While I'm sure there were plenty of people after the America civil war who were destitute and became carpetbaggers and scalawags in order to remain solvent and keep their families from starving, there were just as many who simply wanted to capitalize on other peoples' misery.

I think in most cases the people would have been able to tell the difference.

That said, it was a very complicated situation and of course each area would have a different history and a different way of dealing with things.

It just must have been terrible to come through such a difficult time, only to have the people around you give up their loyalty and beliefs, to do what amounted to sucking up to the enemy.

I can't say I wouldn't do what it took to take care of my family, but it would have to be a hard, hard situation before I would do that.

By irontoenail — On Oct 01, 2011

This is the kind of situation that would be extremely difficult to navigate. It's one thing to say that the scalawags should stay loyal to their neighbors and even to their own beliefs, but the years after the war were extremely hard for everyone. If a person could take advantage of a situation and thus restore some ability to take care of their family, it would be difficult to fault them for that.

But, at the same time I can definitely see why others would resent this. Which would make it an even more difficult decision. After all, your family would still have to live with the people who felt they were traitors. So is it better to be well fed and unpopular, or hungry and popular?

I'm glad I don't have to make that decision.

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