"Scalawag" was a derogatory term used by recalcitrant white southerners after the Civil War and during the dozen years of Reconstruction (1865–1877). It was applied to those white southerners who cooperated with the Union troops and with the Reconstruction State legislatures. Many of these "Scalawags" came from small farm, non-slaveholding backgrounds and in fact had resented the southern planter class and its slave system even before the Civil War. They felt correctly that the existence of slavery hurt them too, because slave labor depressed the bargaining power of wage labor. They argued that slaves would always impoverish its non-slave-owning white neighbors. The Scalawags and many former slaves tried to join the Republican Party in the South to secure their status as full southern citizens. The majority of southern whites, however, looked at the Scalawags with contempt. In their eyes, the Scalawags were traitors to the southern cause and to their fellow whites. Some of these defeated members of the Confederacy joined paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Mississippi "Red Shirts" and others. They wanted to intimidate or, in some cases, to kill both the former slaves who were trying to secure their new rights and the Scalawags, who were trying to build an alliance with the exslaves in the southern Republican Party. The intimidation worked, for the most part, and the Republican Party never established itself in the post–Civil War South.
See also: Carpetbaggers
Scalawag was a negative term used in the post-Civil War South. The origin of the term is unclear, but people used it before the war to describe a worthless farm animal or person. After the war people used it scornfully to describe a white southerner who cooperated with the Union troops or supported the efforts of Republicans , the party in power at the time, and their Reconstruction legislatures. (Reconstruction was the period after the American Civil War [1861–65] during which the southern states were reorganized and brought back into the Union.) Many scalawags became active politicians, helping to create a new southern environment.
Scalawags were drawn from all parts of southern society, but most came from small, nonslaveholding farms. They resented the planter society and its slave system even before the American Civil War. The immense production of crops by plantations made market competition by small farmers impossible.
Enthusiastic to make changes, scalawags joined Republican Reconstruction efforts in the South after the Civil War. They favored debtor relief, low taxes, and measures to restrict the voting rights of former confederates (those who supported the South during the war). Though they were willing to acknowledge some changes in political and civil rights for African Americans, they strongly opposed integration of white and black societies.
Democratic opponents of Republican politicians embraced the derogatory use of the term scalawag. They used it to paint Republican supporters as traitors to the South and to the white race. The verbal campaign was effective, and Democrats eventually regained political power in the South.
SCALAWAG, originally used to describe runty or diseased cattle, was the term of opprobrium applied to white southerners who joined with former slaves and carpet-baggers in support of Republican policies during the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War. In the states of the upper South, white Republicans were generally hill-country farmers with Unionist sympathies. Those in the Deep South came from elements of the planter-business aristocracy with Whig antecedents. Neither group was committed to black rights or suffrage, but their role in Reconstruction was important. Constituting approximately 20 percent of the white electorate, they often provided the crucial margin of victory for the Republicans. In the constitutional conventions of 1867–1868 and in the subsequent state governments, they exerted leadership disproportionate to their popular strength.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863– 1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
William G.Shade/c. p.