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.