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The term referred to the observation that these newcomers tended to carry "carpet bags," a common form of luggage at the time (sturdy and made from used carpet). It was used as a derogatory term, suggesting opportunism and exploitation by the outsiders. Together with Republicans, they are said to have politically manipulated and controlled former Confederate states for varying periods for their own financial and power gains. In sum, carpetbaggers were seen as insidious Northern outsiders with questionable objectives meddling in local politics, buying up plantations at fire-sale prices and taking advantage of Southerners.
The term carpetbaggers was also used to describe the Republican political appointees who came South, arriving with their travel carpet bags. Southerners considered them ready to loot and plunder the defeated South.
In modern usage in the U.S., the term is sometimes used derisively to refer to a politician who runs for public office in an area where he or she does not have deep community ties, or has lived only for a short time. In the United Kingdom, the term was adopted to refer informally to those who join a mutual organization, such as a building society, in order to force it to demutualize, that is, to convert into a joint stock company, solely for personal financial gain.
Beginning in 1862 Northern abolitionists moved to areas in the South that had fallen under Union control. Schoolteachers and religious missionaries arrived in the South, some sponsored by northern churches. Some were abolitionists who sought to continue the struggle for racial equality; they often became agents of the federal Freedmen's Bureau, which started operations in 1865 to assist the vast numbers of recently emancipated slaves. The bureau established schools in rural areas of the South for the purpose of educating the mostly illiterate black population. Other Northerners who moved to the South participated in rebuilding railroads that had been previously destroyed during the war.
During the time blacks were enslaved, they were prohibited from education and attaining literacy. Southern states had no public school systems, and white southerners sent their children to private schools or else employed private tutors. After the war, hundreds of northern white women moved South; many to teach newly freed African-American children. While some northerners went south with reformist impulses, many others went South merely to exploit the chaotic situation for personal gain.
Many carpetbaggers were businessmen who purchased or leased plantations and became wealthy landowners, hiring freedmen to do the labor. Most were former Union soldiers eager to invest their savings in this promising new frontier, and civilians lured south by press reports of "the fabulous sums of money to be made in the South in raising cotton." Foner notes that "joined with the quest for profit, however, was a reforming spirit, a vision of themselves as agents of sectional reconciliation and the South's "economic regeneration." Accustomed to viewing Southerners—black and white—as devoid of economic initiative and self-discipline, they believed that only "Northern capital and energy" could bring "the blessings of a free labor system to the region."
Carpetbaggers tended to be well educated and middle class in origin. Some had been lawyers, businessmen, newspaper editors, Union Army members and other pillars of Northern communities. The majority (including 52 of the 60 who served in Congress during Reconstruction) were veterans of the Union Army.
Leading "black carpetbaggers" believed the interests of capital and labor identical, and the freedmen entitled to little more than an "honest chance in the race of life."
Many Northern and Southern Republicans shared a modernizing vision of upgrading the Southern economy and society, one that would replace the inefficient Southern plantation regime with railroads, factories and more efficient farming. They actively promoted public schooling and created numerous colleges and universities. The Northerners were especially successful in taking control of Southern railroads, aided by state legislatures. In 1870 Northerners controlled 21% of the South's railroads (by mileage); 19% of the directors were from the North. By 1890 they controlled 88% of the mileage; 47% of the directors were from the North.
Union General Adelbert Ames, a native of Maine, was appointed military governor and later was elected as Republican governor of Mississippi during the Reconstruction era. Ames tried unsuccessfully to ensure equal rights for black Mississippians. His political battles with the Southerners and African Americans ripped apart his party.
The "Black and Tan" (biracial) constitutional convention in Mississippi in 1868 included 29 white Southerners, 17 Southern freedmen and 24 nonsoutherners, nearly all of whom were veterans of the Union Army. They included four men who had lived in the South before the war, two of whom had served in the Confederate States Army. Among the more prominent were Gen. Beroth B. Eggleston, a native of New York; Col. A. T. Morgan, of the Second Wisconsin Volunteers; Gen. W. S. Barry, former commander of a Colored regiment raised in Kentucky; an Illinois general and lawyer who graduated from Knox College; Maj. W. H. Gibbs, of the Fifteenth Illinois infantry; Judge W. B. Cunningham, of Pennsylvania; and Cap. E. J. Castello, of the Seventh Missouri infantry. They were among the founders of the Republican party in Mississippi.
They were prominent in the politics of the state until 1875, but nearly all left Mississippi in 1875 to 1876 under pressure from the Red Shirts and White Liners. These white paramilitary organizations, described as "the military arm of the Democratic Party", worked openly to violently overthrow Republican rule, using intimidation and assassination to turn Republicans out of office and suppress freedmen's voting.
Albert T. Morgan, the Republican sheriff of Yazoo, Mississippi, received a brief flurry of national attention when insurgent white Democrats took over the county government and forced him to flee. He later wrote Yazoo; Or, on the Picket Line of Freedom in the South (1884).
On November 6, 1875, Hiram Revels, a Mississippi Republican and the first African-American U.S. Senator, wrote a letter to U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant that was widely reprinted. Revels denounced Ames and Northerners for manipulating the Black vote for personal benefit, and for keeping alive wartime hatreds:
Elza Jeffords, a lawyer from Portsmouth, Ohio, who fought with the Army of the Tennessee, remained in Mississippi after the conclusion of the Civil War. He was the last Republican to represent that state in the U.S. House of Representatives, having served from 1883 to 1885. He died in Vicksburg sixteen days after he left Congress. The next Republican congressman from the state came eighty years later, Prentiss Walker of Mize in Smith County, who served a single term from 1965 to 1967.
Corruption was a charge made by Democrats in North Carolina against the Republicans, notes the historian Paul Escott, "because its truth was apparent." The historians Eric Foner and W. E. B. Du Bois have noted that Democrats as well as Republicans received bribes and participated in decisions about the railroad. Gen. Milton S. Littlefield, was dubbed the "Prince of Carpetbaggers," and bought votes in the legislature "to support grandiose and fraudulent railroad schemes." Escott concludes that some Democrats were involved, but Republicans "bore the main responsibility for the issue of $28 million in state bonds for railroads and the accompanying corruption. This sum, enormous for the time, aroused great concern." Foner says Littlefield disbursed $200,000 (bribes) to win support in the legislature for state money for his railroads, and Democrats as well as Republicans were guilty of taking the bribes and making the decisions on the railroad. North Carolina Democrats condemned the legislature's "depraved villains, who take bribes every day;" one local Republican officeholder complained, "I deeply regret the course of some of our friends in the Legislature as well as out of it in regard to financial matters, it is very embarrassing indeed."
Extravagance and corruption increased taxes and the costs of government in a state that had always favored low expenditure, Escott pointed out. The context was that a planter elite kept taxes low because it benefited them. They used their money toward private ends rather than public investment. None of the states had established public school systems before the Reconstruction state legislatures created them, and they had systematically underinvested in infrastructure such as roads and railroads. Planters whose properties occupied prime riverfront locations relied on river transportation, but smaller farmers in the backcountry suffered.
Escott claimed, "Some money went to very worthy causes— the 1869 legislature, for example, passed a school law that began the rebuilding and expansion of the state's public schools. But far too much was wrongly or unwisely spent" to aid the Republican Party leadership. A Republican county commissioner in Alamance eloquently denounced the situation: "Men are placed in power who instead of carrying out their duties . . . form a kind of school for to graduate Rascals. Yes if you will give them a few Dollars they will liern you for an accomplished Rascal. This is in reference to the taxes that are rung from the labouring class of people. Without a speedy reformation I will have to resign my post."
Albion W. Tourgée, formerly of Ohio and a friend of President James A. Garfield, moved to North Carolina, where he practiced as a lawyer and was appointed a judge. He once opined that "Jesus Christ was a carpetbagger." Tourgée later wrote A Fool's Errand, a largely autobiographical novel about an idealistic carpetbagger persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.[original research?]
A politician in South Carolina who was called a carpetbagger was Daniel Henry Chamberlain, a New Englander who had served as an officer of a predominantly black regiment of the United States Colored Troops. He was appointed South Carolina's attorney general from 1868 to 1872 and was elected Republican governor from 1874 to 1877. As a result of the national Compromise of 1877, Chamberlain lost his office. He was narrowly re-elected in a campaign marked by egregious voter fraud and violence against freedmen by Democratic Red Shirts, who succeeded in suppressing the black vote in some majority-black counties. While serving in South Carolina, Chamberlain was a strong supporter of Negro rights.
Some historians of the early 1930s, who belonged to the Dunning School that believed that the Reconstruction era was fatally flawed claimed that Chamberlain was later influenced by Social Darwinism to become a white supremacist. They also wrote that he supported states' rights and laissez-faire in the economy. They portrayed "liberty" in 1896 as the right to rise above the rising tide of equality. Chamberlain was said to justify white supremacy by arguing that, in evolutionary terms, the Negro obviously belonged to an inferior social order.
Charles Stearns, also from Massachusetts, wrote an account of his experience in South Carolina: The Black Man of the South, and the Rebels: Or, the Characteristics of the Former and the Recent Outrages of the Latter (1873).
Francis Lewis Cardozo, a black minister from New Haven, Connecticut, served as a delegate to South Carolina's Constitutional Convention (1868). He made eloquent speeches advocating that the plantations be broken up and distributed among the freedmen. They wanted their own land to farm and believed they had already paid for land by their years of uncompensated labor and the trials of slavery.
Henry C. Warmoth was the Republican governor of Louisiana from 1868 to 1874. As governor, Warmoth was plagued by accusations of corruption, which continued to be a matter of controversy long after his death. He was accused of using his position as governor to trade in state bonds for his personal benefit. In addition, the newspaper company which he owned received a contract from the state government. Warmoth supported the franchise for freedmen.
He struggled to lead the state during the years when the White League, a white Democratic paramilitary organization, conducted an open campaign of violence and intimidation against Republicans, including freedmen, with the goals of regaining Democratic power and white supremacy. They pushed Republicans from political positions, were responsible for the Coushatta Massacre, disrupted Republican organizing, and preceded elections with such intimidation and violence that black voting was sharply reduced. Warmoth stayed in Louisiana after Reconstruction and following the white Democrats' regaining political power in the state. He died in 1931 at age 89.
Algernon Sidney Badger, a Boston, Massachusetts native, held various appointed federal positions in New Orleans only under Republican national administrations during and after Reconstruction. He first came to New Orleans with the Union Army in 1863 and never left the area. He is interred there at Metairie Cemetery.
George Luke Smith, a New Hampshire native, served briefly in the U.S. House from Louisiana's 4th congressional district but was unseated in 1874 by the Democrat William M. Levy. He then left Shreveport for Hot Springs, Arkansas
George E. Spencer was a prominent Republican U.S. Senator. His 1872 reelection campaign in Alabama opened him to allegations of "political betrayal of colleagues; manipulation of Federal patronage; embezzlement of public funds; purchase of votes; and intimidation of voters by the presence of Federal troops." He was a major speculator in a distressed financial paper.
Tunis Campbell, a black New York businessman, was hired in 1863 by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to help former slaves in Port Royal, South Carolina. When the Civil War ended, Campbell was assigned to the Sea Islands of Georgia, where he engaged in an apparently successful land reform program for the benefit of the freedmen. He eventually became vice-chair of the Georgia Republican Party, a state senator and the head of an African-American militia which he hoped to use against the Ku Klux Klan.
William Hines Furbush, born a slave in Kentucky in 1839, received an education in Ohio, and migrated to Helena, Arkansas in 1862. Back in Ohio in February 1865, he joined the Forty-second Colored Infantry at Columbus. After the war Furbush migrated to Liberia through the American Colonization Society. He returned to Ohio after 18 months and moved back to Arkansas by 1870. Furbush was elected to two terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives, 1873–74 (Phillips County) and 1879–80 (Lee County).
In 1873 the state passed a civil rights law. Furbush and three other black leaders, including the bill's primary sponsor state Sen. Richard A. Dawson, sued a Little Rock barkeeper for refusing to serve the group service. The suit resulted in the only successful Reconstruction prosecution under the state's civil rights law. In the legislature Furbush worked to create a new county, Lee, from portions of Phillips, Crittenden, Monroe and St. Francis counties.
Following the end of his 1873 legislative term, Furbush was appointed sheriff by Republican Governor Elisha Baxter. Furbush won reelection as sheriff twice and served from 1873 to 1878. During his term, he adopted a policy of "fusion," a post-Reconstruction power-sharing compromise between Democrats and Republicans. Furbush was originally elected as a Republican, but he switched to the Democratic Party at the end of his time as sheriff. In 1878, Furbush was again elected to the Arkansas House. His election is noteworthy because he was elected as a black Democrat in an election season notorious for white intimidation of black and Republican voters in black-majority eastern Arkansas. Furbush is the first known black Democrat elected to the Arkansas General Assembly.
In March 1879 Furbush left Arkansas for Colorado, where he worked as an assayer and barber. In Bonanza, Colorado he avoided a lynch mob after shooting and killing a town constable. At the trial he was acquitted of murder. He returned to Little Rock, Arkansas, by 1888, following another stay in Ohio.
In 1889, he and E. A. Fulton, a fellow black Democrat, announced plans for the National Democrat, a party weekly intended to attract black voters to the Democratic Party. After failing to attract black voters and following white Democrats' passage of the Arkansas 1891 Election Law that disfranchised most black voters, Furbush left the state. He traveled to South Carolina and Georgia, but they soon disfranchised black voters, too.
Carpetbaggers were least visible in Texas. Republicans were in power from 1867 to January 1874. Only one state official and one justice of the state supreme court were Northerners. About 13% to 21% of district court judges were Northerners, along with about 10% of the delegates who wrote the Reconstruction constitution of 1869. Of the 142 men who served in the 12th Legislature, only 12 to 29 were Northerners. At the county level, they included about 10% of the commissioners, county judges and sheriffs.
New Yorker George T. Ruby was sent as an agent by the Freedmen's Bureau to Galveston, Texas, where he settled. Later elected a Texas state senator, Ruby was instrumental in various economic development schemes and in efforts to organize African-American dockworkers into the Labor Union of Colored Men. When Reconstruction ended Ruby became a leader of the Exoduster movement, which encouraged Southern blacks to homestead in Kansas to escape white supremacist violence and the oppression of segregation.
The Dunning school of American historians (1900–1950) viewed carpetbaggers unfavorably, arguing that they degraded the political and business culture. The revisionist school in the 1930s called them stooges of Northern business interests. After 1960 the neoabolitionist school emphasized their moral courage.
Carpetbagging was used as a term in Great Britain in the late 1990s during the wave of demutualizations of building societies. It indicated members of the public who joined mutual societies with the hope of making a quick profit from the conversion. Contemporarily speaking, the term carpetbagger refers to roving financial opportunists, often of modest means, who spot investment opportunities and aim to benefit from a set of circumstances to which they are not ordinarily entitled. In recent years the best opportunities for carpetbaggers have come from opening membership accounts at building societies for as little as £1, to qualify for windfalls running into thousands of pounds from the process of conversion and takeover. The influx of such transitory ‘token’ members as carpetbaggers, took advantage of these nugatory deposit criteria, often to instigate or accelerate the trend towards wholesale demutualisation.
Investors in these mutuals would receive shares in the new public companies, usually distributed at a flat rate, thus equally benefiting small and large investors, and providing a broad incentive for members to vote for conversion-advocating leadership candidates. The word was first used in this context in early 1997 by the chief executive of the Woolwich Building Society, who announced the society's conversion with rules removing the most recent new savers' entitlement to potential windfalls and stated in a media interview, "I have no qualms about disenfranchising carpetbaggers."
Between 1997 and 2002, a group of pro-demutualization supporters "Members for Conversion" operated a website, carpetbagger.com, which highlighted the best ways of opening share accounts with UK building societies, and organized demutualization resolutions. [broken citation] This led many building societies to implement anti-carpetbagging policies, such as not accepting new deposits from customers who lived outside the normal operating area of the society.
During World War II, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services surreptitiously supplied necessary tools and material to anti-Nazi resistance groups in Europe. The OSS called this effort Operation Carpetbagger, and the modified B-24 aircraft used for the night-time missions were referred to as "carpetbaggers." (Among other special features, they were painted a glossy black to make them less visible to searchlights.) Between January and September 1944, Operation Carpetbagger operated 1,860 sorties between RAF Harrington, England, and various points in occupied Europe. 
The term "carpetbagger" was also used by John Fahey, a former Premier of New South Wales and federal Liberal finance minister, in the context of shoddy "tradespeople" who travelled to Queensland to take advantage of victims following the 2010–2011 Queensland floods.
Individuals moving into abandoned and reconstructed areas after a major flood or hurricane, such as people moving into abandoned sectors of New Orleans after a major hurricane, such as Hurricane Katrina could be considered true carpetbaggers, while wealthy landowners charging more for rents to the people made homeless and to the displaced poor people, might be considered carpetbaggers in a modern and opportunistic sense.
In the United States, the term is still used, usually derogatorily, to refer to individuals, especially politicians, who move to different states, districts or areas for economic or political gain.
A carpetbag steak or carpetbagger steak is an end cut of steak that is pocketed and commonly stuffed with, amongst other things, oysters, mushrooms, bacon, blue cheese and garlic. The steak is then sutured with toothpicks or thread. Although its origin is unclear, the name may indicate a connection with historical carpetbaggers or with gluttony in general.