Carpetbaggers and the South's Economy

Updated on April 24, 2020
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

The South - Easy Prey

The change in the economic status of the entire country played a major part in the treatment of the new freed slaves and the role of the carpetbagger. It began with the change in the status of the slaves combined with the effects of war on the land.

The South became easy prey to anyone with a creative and unethical mindset.

Slavery was the Backbone of the Economy

The slaves were the primary labor force in the South. They planted the crops, harvested them, and took care of the land. That included the cotton crops. Cotton was a very important product as so much of the world was finding itself dependent on Southern cotton production. In fact, European countries were so dependent that they continued to support the Confederacy during the war as they needed the raw material. The newly formed Confederacy was not above bribing those nations with their desired material.

With the war over, the South faced no cotton industry to fall back on. The labor was gone now in the sense of being able to control that labor, and the over use of the fields to grow cotton depleted the soil of vital nutrients. It came down to the fact that the South was without the money making industry it once had which put it in an economic bind. It needed help. The carpetbaggers exploiting the South saw that as an opportunity to rush in and 'help' those in need.



From the results of the war, blacks and white farmers worked out a unique form of farming called sharecropping. By going back to most of their former masters, freed slaves worked the land but not as slaves at the mercy of their plantation masters. The owner of the land provided the supplies while the black man provided the labor. The result was usually an agreement of 50/50 for the master and the former slave. This provided the labor the plantation owner needed and the food and money for the former slave who was faced with no prospects.

This was a great system until cotton prices began to decline and the sharecropper was left facing financial ruin. Carpetbaggers swooped in to 'help' the sharecropper out and give them the aid they needed. Most of it was in the form of loans, but the carpetbagger took advantage of the sharecropper through "high interest rates, fraud", and even crop failures. The black man found a new form of slavery that was only enforced by the unscrupulous carpetbagger.

Infrastructure Down

During the war, many if not most of the railroads were destroyed by both the Union and Confederate army. The roads in the country were not the main transportation method nor were they in the best of conditions. It was the railroad that was the binding of social and economic infrastructure. With the railroad practically non-existent, the South would have been facing a huge challenge even if there wasn't a slave or cotton issue. Many carpetbaggers saw this as a chance to make money because it was guaranteed that the railroads would be needed.


There Were Good People

Others came to truly help the South by offering advice and the desire to "rebuild the South's economy". The war-torn land pulled at many hearts as the South found itself unable to move forward on its own. Of the carpetbaggers who moved south to help, educated businessmen came as well to lend their knowledge to the political and economic development. They invested in rebuilding railroads which was crucial in the reconstruction of the South. They even sought to invest in manufacturing. While many did use illegal means to invest in railroads and business, many were also investing in order to help while gaining a little on the side. Their intentions were more honorable then criminal.


Bergeron, Paul H.. Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011.

“Carpetbagger.” Merriam-Webster.

“Carpetbaggers and Scalawags.” Boundless.

Foner, Eric. “Q&A: Schools and Education During Reconstruction.”

“Free Labor to Slave Labor, America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War.” Digital History. reconstruction/section3/section3_intro.html.

Hume, Richard L. and Jerry B. Gough. Blacks, Carpetbaggers, and Scalawags: the Constitutional Conventions of Radical Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2008.

“King Cotton.”

King, David C.. Civil War and Reconstruction. Hoboken: J. Wiley, 2003.

“Reconstruction,” University of West Georgia,

“Reconstruction in the South: Carpetbaggers and Scalawags.” Texas Digital Library.

Richardson, Heather Cox. Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

"The Ku Klux Klan, 1868". EyeWitness to History. (2006).

Tunnell, Ted. “Creating the Propaganda of History: Southern Editors and the Origins of “Carpetbagger” and Scalawag..”. Journal of Southern History 72. no. 4. November 2006.


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