The Louisiana Scalawags: Politics, Race, and Terrorism during the Civil War and Reconstruction
During the Civil War and Reconstruction, the pejorative term "scalawag" referred to white southerners loyal to the Republican Party. With the onset of the federal occupation of New Orleans in 1862, scalawags challenged the restoration of the antebellum political and social orders. Derided as opportunists, uneducated "poor white trash," Union sympathizers, and race traitors, scalawags remain largely misunderstood even today. In The Louisiana Scalawags, Frank J. Wetta offers the first in-depth analysis of these men and their struggle over the future of Louisiana. A significant assessment of the interplay of politics, race, and terrorism during Reconstruction, this study answers an array of questions about the origin and demise of the scalawags, and debunks much of the negative mythology surrounding them.
Contrary to popular thought, the southern white Republicans counted among their ranks men of genuine accomplishment and talent. They worked in fields as varied as law, business, medicine, journalism, and planting, and many held government positions as city officials, judges, parish officeholders, and state legislators in the antebellum years. Wetta demonstrates that a strong sense of nationalism often motivated the men, no matter their origins.
Louisiana's scalawags grew most active and influential during the early stages of Reconstruction, when they led in founding the state's Republican Party. The vast majority of white Louisianans, however, rejected the scalawags' appeal to form an alliance with the freedmen in a biracial political party. Eventually, the influence of the scalawags succumbed to persistent terrorism, corruption, and competition from the white carpetbaggers and their black Republican allies. By then, the state's Republican Party consisted of white political leaders without any significant white constituency. According to Wetta, these weaknesses, as well as ineffective federal intervention in response to a Democratic Party insurgency, caused the Republican Party to collapse and Reconstruction to fail in Louisiana.
Unionists The moderate faction (led by Michael Hahn, A. P. Dostie, Benjamin F. Lynch, and others) “supported Lincoln, Seward, and the moderate Republicans in advocacy of caution and conciliation, in reluctance to push Negro rights and in opposition to confiscation.” This moderate element, Gerald M. Capers maintains in his study of occupied New Orleans, “opposed political and social equality for Negroes, to which white urban workers [whom the moderates claimed to represent] objected almost as much
requested that an election for state officers be held.39 The conservatives’ proposal was not unexpected. Michael Hahn, in a letter written on June 6, 1863, had warned Lincoln of their design to effect a quick restoration favorable to the old power elite: The Union people of this State (except, of course, office-holders) are all in favor of a reorganization of a loyal State government. The only 73 The Louisiana Scalawags question on which they are divided is as to whether a new Constitution
ground.” Thus, the president replied: Since receiving the letter, reliable information has reached me that a respectable portion of the Louisiana people, desire to amend their State constitution, and contemplate holding a convention for that object. This fact alone, as it seems to me, is a sufficient reason why the general government should not give the committal you seek, to the existing State constitution. I may add that, while I do not perceive how such committal could facilitate our military
for everyone who participated in the deadly affair had to share the blame.”4 James S. Hogue places the New Orleans riot in the context of five street battles in New Orleans, occurring in 1866, 1872, 1873, 1874, and 1877. He judges that the remote causes of the 1866 riot lay in the violent convergence in New Orleans of two powerful forces: “a large and restless population of Confederate veterans” and the presence of “the largest population of black veterans in the South” encouraged a “nucleus of
the female members.” The hall, it is recorded, erupted with laughter and cheers. Encouraged by the audience response, Warmoth continued the attack: “He says I have done some big things in this state—that I have made a big fortune; that I have created for the State of Louisiana a big debt, and I forget what other big things he charged me with.” Warmoth wondered, in fact, how Carter knew that he had made a fortune while governor: “How did George W. Carter become familiar with my bank account? Who