SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: America’s everlasting Reconstruction: Carpetbaggers, scalawags, canards and a biography of U.S. Grant.


The book is Ron Chernow’s Grant, a biography of Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885). When the Civil War began, Grant was a former military officer languishing in obscurity in Galena, Illinois. The war changed everything, because Grant’s fundamental skill was grasping the logistics of warfare, and it served him well, indeed.

Grant coordinated the strategy that won the war for the Union, became Commanding General of the Army, and then was elected to two terms as the 18th President of the United States.

The war itself was finite. What came afterward continues to vex us.

Chernow is clearly out to find undiscovered nobility in his story, and he succeeds; he also finds uncannily prescient tragedy. There are ways in which Grant’s times eerily resemble our own.

It’s jolting to read about how the Union’s Civil War victory proved to be a beginning, not an ending; how it led to a spike in white supremacist groups and their efforts to keep newly enfranchised black men from voting; how the president who succeeded Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, seemed determined to undo the Union’s success; how the voting rights for freed male slaves guaranteed by the 15th Amendment were allowed to erode; how the once squeaky-clean Grant began surrounding himself with rich friends and became embroiled in financial scandal once he attained the power of the presidency.

The first half of the biography documents Grant’s life and career up to the conclusion of the Civil War, with the remainder devoted to his presidency and later life.

As a Civil War buff since childhood, Grant’s war record is very familiar to me. However, I’ve never properly studied his post-war career in politics, which is synonymous with the period of the Reconstruction — and like most Americans, I know far too little about this period of the nation’s history.

Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, two more years of war, service by African American troops, and the defeat of the Confederacy, the nation was still unprepared to deal with the question of full citizenship for its newly freed black population. The Reconstruction implemented by Congress, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, was aimed at reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War, providing the means for readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a non-slave society. The South, however, saw Reconstruction as a humiliating, even vengeful imposition and did not welcome it.

Whatever else might be written about Reconstruction, it spawned the imperfectly understood term “carpetbagger.”

Five Myths About Reconstruction
, by James W. Loewen (Zinn Education Project)

3. Northerners used Reconstruction to take advantage of the South and get rich.

Many Americans still learn this canard, epitomized by the term “carpetbaggers.”

The story—as exemplified in the 2011 edition of the textbook The American Journey — is that fortune-hunters from the North “arrived with all their belongings in cheap suitcases made of carpet fabric.” Penniless, they would then make it rich off the prostrate South. John F. Kennedy said in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, “No state suffered more from carpetbag rule than Mississippi.”

The first clue that this view might be far-fetched comes from the fact that the economies of most Southern states were in ruins. Fortune-seekers will go where the money is, and it was not in the postwar South. Instead, immigrants from the North were mostly of four types: missionaries bringing Christianity (and often literacy) to newly freed people; teachers eager to help Black children and adults learn to read, write, and cipher; Union soldiers and seamen who were stationed in Mississippi and liked the place or fell in love; and would-be political leaders, Black and white, determined to make interracial government work.

A “canard” is a noun about a duck, implying buffalo chips.

Before 1850, from French canard “a hoax,” literally “a duck” (from Old French quanart, probably echoic of a duck’s quack); said by Littré to be from the phrase vendre un canard à moitié “to half-sell a duck,” thus, from some long-forgotten joke, “to cheat.”

It’s an interesting question of perception.

We’ve long since accepted “carpetbagger” in the sense of an opportunistic political candidate, and I’ve been among those who’ve used the term to describe Trey Hollingworth, who came to Indiana from Tennessee with a cash-stuffed banjo on his knee and bought a seat in the House of Representatives.

Although in doing so, we’re accepting the Southern definition of the term as one of opprobrium, and ignoring the fact that it was used to denigrate well-intentioned people who’d now fancy themselves as left-leaners voting against the likes of Hollingsworth.

We probably should be referring to Hollingsworth as a canard, not a carpetbagger. 

Perhaps I’m too European, but a duck quacks, a quack is a meteorologist physician politician, and the notion of a politician quacking like a duck reminds me of certain opportunistic city council members embracing urban designs redolent of suburban outlet malls.

As Groucho Marx might have asked, viaduct?

By the way …

What’s the difference between a carpetbagger and a scalawag? by Elizabeth Mix (History)

White Southerners who supported Reconstruction-era Republicans were called scalawags by their political enemies, who considered them traitors to the South and just as bad, if not worse, than carpetbaggers. Scalawags included non-slaveholding, small-time farmers; middle-class professionals and others who had stayed loyal to the Union during the war. Although the exact origins of scalawag are unknown, it was in use in the United States before the Civil War as a term for both a farm animal of little value and a ne’er-do-well individual.

What are YOU reading?