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  • The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Michael Perman
The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction. By James Alex Baggett. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. Pp. 323. Cloth, $55.00; paper, $22.95.)

Support from Southern whites, as both voters and officials, was of critical importance to the Republican party in the Reconstruction South. Because they were so significant to the Republicans, and so vilified by the Democratic opposition, these "scalawags" have intrigued historians who have wondered who they were and what compelled them to take such a dramatic position. The antecedents of these men has interested historians far more than what they expected to achieve through joining the Republicans and what role they actually played in the party's struggle to reconstruct and govern the South after the Civil War. Also evident in the scholarship on the "scalawags" is a preoccupation with those who were politicians and officeholders, yet most Southern whites who were Republicans were voters, and they, together with the newly enfranchised ex-slaves, constituted the party's electoral base.

James Alex Baggett's study follows the more familiar line, focusing on the political background of those "scalawags" who were the leaders. Although a different approach along the lines suggested above might have been more innovative, The Scalawags is nonetheless groundbreaking. It covers the entire Southern region and examines a very large number of individuals—742 of them in fact—along with a control group of 666 Southern white politicians whom the author categorizes as "redeemers" who stayed with the Democrats. In its region-wide scope and its extensive database, this book surpasses all previous studies of this elusive yet highly significant political grouping.

Similarly thorough and inclusive is the book's organization and content, for it traces these hundreds of "scalawags" through the formative political events of roughly the previous decade to see how they arrived at the doors of the Republican party in 1867-68. The process begins in the 1850s and then proceeds through the secession crisis, the Confederacy, wartime and presidential Reconstruction, arriving finally at congressional Reconstruction and [End Page 115] the formation of the new party. This complex sequence of events is discussed state by state, although the eleven states are broken down into three regions: Upper South (Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina), Southwest (Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas), and Southeast (essentially the five Deep South states). Nevertheless, the resulting chronological account contains so many episodes and individuals that the emergence of the "scalawags" as proto-Republicans soon becomes, not a process that can be synthesized and explained, but a blur of names and occurrences that will leave most readers quite dizzy and baffled. Even this reviewer who is very well acquainted with the subject found the scarcity of generalization frustrating.

From this complex and detailed account, some identifying characteristics do nevertheless emerge. "Scalawags" were invariably opposed to secession and they were reluctant supporters of, if not hostile toward, the Confederacy. After the war, they were opposed to disfranchising former Confederates as well as enfranchising former slaves, while their general attitudes toward Reconstruction and African Americans were more favorable and sympathetic than those of their "redeemer" counterparts. But the Republican party, with its electoral base of freshly enfranchised black voters, was not the kind of postwar political organization most "scalawags" had in mind. As the author points out, they had maneuvered to create Union parties in the South that would be moderate and centrist, but not as radical as they feared the incipient Republican party would be. Thus, they joined the party of Reconstruction with little enthusiasm, it appears, hoping they could moderate and curb its influences, thereby preventing the political and economic change that would actually reconstruct the region. Fair-weather-friends of the new party, and deeply skeptical about its black voting base, these "southern dissenters," as the author describes them, found themselves in a quandary by 1867. Very soon, the narrow limits of their dissent would become apparent.

This conclusion seems implicit in the evidence from Baggett's investigation, but it is not developed or elaborated. Indeed, a generalization that explains why these anti-secessionist, anti-Confederate anti-Democrats found themselves in...


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