01/02/2013 10:39 AM
BATON ROUGE – 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
In “The Louisiana Scalawags,” available this month from LSU Press, 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.
Wetta is senior fellow at the Center for History, Politics, and Policy in the department of history at Kean University. He is a former Leverhulme British Commonwealth, United States Visiting Fellow in American Studies at the University of Keele in the United Kingdom.
Posted on Wednesday, January 2, 2013