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In United States history, scalawag was a nickname for southern whites who supported Reconstruction following the Civil War.


Scalawags formed a winning coalition with freedmen (blacks who were former slaves) and Northern newcomers (pejoratively labeled carpetbaggers) to take control of their state and local governments. Despite being a minority, they gained power by taking advantage of the Reconstruction laws of 1867 that disenfranchised (forbidding to vote or hold office) the majority of Southerners who could not or did not wish to take the ironclad oath certifying that they did not serve in Confederate military or hold any office under the previous regime. This coalition controlled for varying lengths of time during 1866-1877 every ex-Confederate state except Virginia. Two of the most prominent scalawags were General James Longstreet (Robert E. Lee's top general, after Stonewall Jackson), and Joseph E. Brown wartime governor of Georgia. In the 1870s, many switched from the Republican Party to the conservative-Democrat coalition, who called themselves Redeemers. Conservative Democrats replaced all Southern state Republican regimes by 1877.

In 1961 historian John Hope Franklin gave this assessment of the motives of Southern Unionists. He noted that as more Southerners were allowed to vote and participate:[1]

A curious assortment of native Southerners thus became eligible to participate in Radical Reconstruction. And the number increased as the President granted individual pardons or issued new proclamations of amnesty.
Their primary interest was in supporting a party that would build the South on a broader base than the plantation aristocracy of Antebellum days. They found it expedient to do business with Negroes and so-called carpetbaggers; but often they returned to the Democratic party as it gained sufficient strength to be a factor in Southern politics.

In Alabama, scalawags dominated the Republican Party.[2] 117 Republicans were nominated, elected, or appointed to the most lucrative and important state executive positions, judgeships, and federal legislative and judicial offices between 1868 and 1881. They included 76 white southerners, 35 northerners, and 6 blacks. In state offices during Reconstruction, white southerners were even more predominant: 51 won nominations, compared to 11 carpetbaggers and one black. 27 scalawags won state executive nominations (75%), 24 won state judicial nominations (89%), and 101 were elected to the Alabama General Assembly (39%). However, fewer scalawags won nominations to federal offices: 15 were nominated or elected to Congress (48%) compared to 11 carpetbaggers and 5 blacks. 48 scalawags were members of the 1867 constitutional convention (49.5% of the Republican membership); and seven scalawags were members of the 1875 constitutional convention (58% of the minuscule Republican membership.)

In South Carolina there were about 100,000 scalawags, or about 15% of the white population. During its heyday, the Republican coalition attracted some wealthier whites, especially moderates favoring cooperation between open-minded Democrats and responsible Republicans. Rubin shows that the collapse of the Republican coalition came from disturbing trends to corruption and factionalism that increasingly characterized the party’s governance. These failings disappointed Northern allies who abandoned the state Republicans in 1876 as the Democrats under Wade Hampton reasserted conservative control. They used the threat of violence to cause many Republicans to stay quiet or switch to the Democrats.[3]

The most prominent scalawag was James L. Alcorn of Mississippi. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1865 but, like all southerners, was not allowed to take a seat while Congress was pondering Reconstruction. He supported suffrage for freedmen and endorsed the Fourteenth Amendment, as demanded by the Republicans in Congress. Alcorn became the leader of the scalawags, who comprised about a third of the Republicans in the state, in coalition with carpetbaggers and freedmen. He was elected by the Republicans as governor in 1869 and served from 1870 to 1871. As a modernizer he appointed many like-minded former Whigs, even if they were Democrats. He strongly supported education, including public schools for blacks only, and a new college for them, now known as Alcorn State University. He maneuvered to make his ally Hiram Revels its president. Radical Republicans opposed Alcorn and were angry at his patronage policy. One complained that Alcorn's policy was to see "the old civilization of the South modernized" rather than lead a total political, social and economic revolution.[4]

Alcorn resigned the governorship to become a U.S. Senator (1871–1877), replacing his ally Hiram Revels, the first African American senator. Senator Alcorn urged the removal of the political disabilities of white southerners, rejected Radical Republican proposals to enforce social equality by federal legislation,[5] he denounced the federal cotton tax as robbery [6] and defended separate schools for both races in Mississippi. Although a former slaveholder, he characterized slavery as a cancer upon the body of the Nation and expressed the gratification which he and many other Southerners felt over its destruction.[7]

Alcorn led a furious political battle with Senator Adelbert Ames, the carpetbagger who led the other faction of the Republican Party in Mississippi. The fight ripped apart the party, with most blacks supporting Ames, but many—including Revels, supporting Alcorn. In 1873, they both sought a decision by running for governor. Ames was supported by the Radicals and most African Americans, while Alcorn won the votes of conservative whites and most of the scalawags. Ames won by a vote of 69,870 to 50,490, and Alcorn retired from state politics.[8]

Origins of the term[]

The term was originally a derogatory epithet but is used by many historians as a useful shorthand. The term originally meant rascal. Here is a quote by historian Ted Tunnell on the origins of the term:[9]

Reference works such as Joseph E. Worcester's 1860 Dictionary of the English Language defined scalawag as "A low worthless fellow; a scapegrace." Scalawag was also a word for low-grade farm animals. In early 1868 a Mississippi editor observed that scalawag "has been used from time immemorial to designate inferior milch cows in the cattle markets of Virginia and Kentucky." That June the Richmond Enquirer concurred; scalawag had heretofore "applied to all of the mean, lean, mangy, hidebound skiny [sic], worthless cattle in every particular drove." Only in recent months, the Richmond paper remarked, had the term taken on political meaning.

During the 1868-69 session of Judge "Greasy" Sam Watts court in Haywood County, North Carolina, Dr. William Closs, D.D. testified that a scalawag was "a Native born Southern white man who says he is no better than a negro and tells the truth when he says it." Some accounts record his testimony as "a native Southern white man, who says that a negro is as good as he is, and tells the truth when he says so."

The word's origins lie, via Scallywag in the Irish language word for drudge or farmservant, "sgaileog". It is a word which appears to be in common modern use within towns that have historic Irish communities in the Northwest of England, predominately Liverpool, where it is sometimes abbreviated to "scall". It is also a derogatory epithet, one that denotes a fashion follower of low class or abilities.

Accusations of corruption[]

Scalawags were denounced as corrupt by Redeemers. The Dunning School of historians sympathized with the claims of the Democrats. Agreeing with the Dunning School, Franklin said, that the scalawags "must take at least part of the blame" for graft and corruption. "But their most serious offense was to have been loyal to the Union during the Civil War or to have declared that they had been loyal and thereby to have enjoyed full citizenship during the period of Radical Reconstruction." [10]

The Democrats alleged the scalawags to be financially and politically corrupt, and willing to support bad government because they profited personally. One Alabama historian claimed: "On economic matters scalawags and Democrats eagerly sought aid for economic development of projects in which they had an economic stake, and they exhibited few scruples in the methods used to push beneficial financial legislation through the Alabama legislature. The quality of the bookkeeping habits of both Republicans and Democrats was equally notorious." [11] However, historian Eric Foner argues there is not sufficient evidence that scalawags were any more or less corrupt than politicians of any era, including Redeemers.[12]

In terms of racial issues, "White Republicans as well as Democrats solicited black votes but reluctantly rewarded blacks with nominations for office only when necessary, even then reserving the more choice positions for whites. The results were predictable: these half-a-loaf gestures satisfied neither black nor white Republicans. The fatal weakness of the Republican party in Alabama, as elsewhere in the South, was its inability to create a biracial political party. And while in power even briefly, they failed to protect their members from Democratic terror. Alabama Republicans were forever on the defensive, verbally and physically." [11]

Social pressure forced most scalawags to join the conservative/Democratic Redeemer coalition. A minority persisted and formed the "tan" half of the "Black and Tan" Republican party, a minority in every southern state after 1877.[13]


White Southern Republicans included formerly closeted Southern abolitionists as well as former slaveowners who supported equal rights for freedmen. (The most famous of this latter group was Samuel F. Phillips, who later argued against segregation in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896)). Included, too, were people who wanted to be part of the ruling Republican Party simply because it provided more opportunities for successful political careers. Many historians have described scalawags in terms of social class, showing that on average they were less wealthy or prestigious than the elite planter class.[14]

The mountain districts of Appalachia were often Republican enclaves.[15] People there held few slaves, and they had poor transportation, deep poverty, and a standing resentment against the Low Country politicians who dominated the Confederacy and conservative Democracy in Reconstruction and after. Their strongholds in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, western Virginia, and North Carolina, and the Ozark region of northern Arkansas, became Republicans bastions. Those areas are again or still Republican. These rural folk had a long-standing hostility toward the planter class. They harbored pro-Union sentiments during the war. Andrew Johnson was their representative leader. They welcomed Reconstruction and much of what the Radical Republicans in Congress advocated.

As Thomas Alexander (1961) showed, there was persistent Whiggery (support for the principles of the defunct Whig Party) in the South after 1865. Many ex-Whigs became Republicans who advocated modernization through education and infrastructure—especially better roads and railroads. Many also joined the Redeemers in their successful attempt to replace the brief period of civil rights promised to African Americans during the Reconstruction era with the Jim Crow era of segregation and second-class citizenship that persisted into the 20th century.

Baggett profiled 742 Scalawags, comparing them to 666 Redeemers who opposed and eventually replaced them. He compared three regions: the Upper South, the Southeast, and the Southwest. Baggett followed the life of each scalawag before, during, and after the war, with respect to birthplace, occupation, value of estate, slave ownership, education, party activity, stand on secession, war politics, and postwar politics.[16]

Baggett thus looked at 1400 political activists across the South, and gave each a score:

  • score = 1 an antisecessionist Breckinridge supporter in 1860 election
  • 2 1860 Bell or Douglas supporter in 1860 election
  • 3 1860-61 opponent of secession
  • 4 passive wartime unionist
  • 5 peace party advocate
  • 6 active wartime unionist
  • 7 postwar Union party supporter

He found the higher the score the more likely the person was a Scalawag.

See also[]


  1. Franklin p. 100
  2. Wiggins 131-38
  3. Rubin 2006
  4. Quoted in Eric Foner, Reconstruction (1988) p 298.
  5. Congressional Globe, 42 Cong., 2 Sess., pp. 246-47
  6. Ibid., pp. 2730-33
  7. Ibid., p. 3424
  8. Pereyra 1966
  9. Tunnell
  10. Franklin, p. 101
  11. 11.0 11.1 Wiggins p 134
  12. Foner, Reconstruction
  13. DeSantis 1998
  14. Baggett 2003
  15. McKinney 1998
  16. Baggett



  • Thomas B. Alexander, “Persistent Whiggery in the Confederate South, l860—77," Journal of Southern History 27 (1961) 305-29, in JSTOR
  • Baggett, James Alex. The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Louisiana State University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8071-2798-1
  • DeSantis, Vincent P. Republicans Face the Southern Question: The New Departure Years, 1877—1897 (1998)
  • Donald, David. "'The Scalawag in Mississippi Reconstruction.” Journal of Southern History 10 (1944) 447—60 in JSTOR
  • Ellem, Warren A. “Who Were the Mississippi Scalawags?” Journal of Southern History 38 (May 1972): 2 17—40 in JSTOR
  • Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction after the Civil War (University of Chicago Press: 1961) ISBN 0-226-26079-8
  • Garner; James Wilford. Reconstruction in Mississippi 1901. Dunning school monograph
  • Kolchin, Peter. “Scalawags, Carpetbaggers, and Reconstruction: A Quantitative Look at Southern Congressional Politics, 1868 to 1872” Journal of Southern History 45 (1979) 63—76, in JSTOR
  • McKinney, Gordon B. Southern Mountain Republicans, 1865—1900: Politics and the Appalachian Community (1998)
  • Pereyra, Lillian A., James Lusk Alcorn: Persistent Whig. LSU Press, 1966.
  • Perman, Michael. The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics 1869—1879 (1984)
  • Rubin, Hyman. South Carolina Scalawags (2006)
  • Ted Tunnell, "Creating 'the Propaganda of History': Southern Editors and the Origins of Carpetbagger and Scalawag," Journal of Southern History (Nov 2006) 72#4 online at The Free Library
  • Wiggins; Sarah Woolfolk. The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865—1881 (1991) online at Questia


  • Fleming, Walter L. Documentary History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious, Educational, and Industrial 2 vol (1906). Uses broad collection of primary sources; vol 1 on national politics; vol 2 on states
  • Memoirs of W. W. Holden (1911), North Carolina Scalawag governor

cs:Scalawagové de:Scalawag es:Scalawag fr:Scalawag it:Scalawag ja:スキャラワグ sr:Скалаваг tr:Scalawag