By: Carl H. Moneyhon

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: October 19, 2020

Carpetbagger was the pejorative term applied to Northerners who moved to the South after the Civil War, specifically those who joined state Republican parties formed in 1867 and who were elected as Republicans to public office. Southern Democrats alleged that the newcomers were corrupt and dishonest adventurers, whose property consisted only of what they could carry in their carpetbags (suitcases made of carpeting), who seized political power and plundered the helpless people of the South. This assessment of the carpetbagger became standard in late-nineteenth-century histories and retained its currency among some historians as late as the 1990s. Since the 1950s, however, revisionist historians have challenged the validity of the traditional view and assessed the carpetbaggers more favorably. For Texas, the revised characterization appears to be more appropriate than the traditional one. Carpetbaggers played only a minor role in the state's Reconstruction history. In part this was because few Northerners who arrived after the Civil War held political offices. In the Constitutional Convention of 1868–69, seven of the ninety-three delegates were carpetbaggers. In the subsequent administration of Governor Edmund J. Davis, Northerners held only the positions of state adjutant general and chief justice of the Supreme Court. Eight of sixty district court judges were carpetbaggers. In the Twelfth Legislature just twelve of 142 state legislators were postwar immigrants from the North. At the county level the actual number of carpetbaggers also was small. One scholar has placed their number at no more than 11 percent.

In addition to their numerical insignificance, Texas carpetbaggers generally do not fit the stereotypical pattern. The most important Northern immigrants to hold major political offices in Texas were congressman William T. Clark from Connecticut, state senator George T. Ruby, a black man from Maine, state treasurer George W. Honey from Wisconsin, adjutant general James Davidson from Scotland, superintendent of public instruction Edwin M. Wheelock from New Hampshire, and Supreme Court justice Moses B. Walker from Ohio. Their lives and careers demonstrate the deficiencies with the traditional view of carpetbaggers. Because most of these men arrived in Texas before black enfranchisement under Congressional Reconstruction in 1867, it is not possible that they were political adventurers intending to take advantage of black voters. Clark, a brevet major general, arrived with the army of occupation in 1865, then resigned that year to become the cashier for the First National Bank of Texas at Galveston. Honey, a clergyman and chaplain of the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry, Ruby, a black newspaperman and teacher, and Wheelock, a Unitarian minister and teacher, all came to Texas in 1865 as employees of the Freedmen's Bureau school system. Only Walker and Davidson came after 1867, but both were in the United States Army and assigned to units that were already in the state. These men joined the Republican party for a variety of different reasons. Honey, Ruby, and Wheelock believed that political action was necessary to secure rights for former slaves in the postwar environment. Clark and Walker apparently were Republicans in the North before the war and continued their prewar political ties. Davidson's reasons for supporting local Republicanism are not known. Rather than representing the lowest or the propertyless class of the North, most of these men were of middle-class origin, usually possessing both education and property. Clark, although from a background of poverty, had established a successful law practice in Iowa before the war. Walker was from a prominent Ohio family, attended Yale College and Cincinnati Law School, and by 1860 was a prosperous attorney at Dayton, with more than $70,000 in property. Wheelock was educated at Harvard and was a pastor. Honey, Ruby, and Davidson, while not wealthy, were educated and do not appear to have been fortune hunters.

On the whole, these men were responsible state officials. Wheelock developed the public school idea that became part of the Constitution of 1869. Walker's career in the state Supreme Court, until his Semicolon ruling in 1874, was considered a conservative one (see SEMICOLON COURT). Congressman Clark secured the first major appropriation for the construction of jetties in Galveston harbor. State senator Ruby supported a variety of laws favorable to the people, both Black and White, of his district. Only two of these important carpetbagger officials were tied to public corruption. Honey was charged with inappropriate use of funds in the state treasury when he loaned state funds to private individuals. He was removed by the Davis administration, but regained the office by order of the state Supreme Court. The state lost no money in Honey's speculations. In the second instance, Adjutant General Davidson defrauded the state of more than $37,000 by issuing fraudulent warrants, and fled the state in 1872. Few in numbers, never particularly powerful relative to the native White or scalawag element of the Republican party, the carpetbaggers of Texas played a minor role in Texas politics after the Civil War. The traditional idea of carpetbag rule is an unsuitable concept to apply to Texas Reconstruction.

Randolph B. Campbell, "Grass Roots Reconstruction: The Personnel of County Government in Texas, 1865–1876," Journal of Southern History 58 (February 1992). Randolph B. Campbell, "Carpetbagger Rule in Reconstruction Texas: An Enduring Myth," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 97 (April 1994). Carl H. Moneyhon, Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980).

Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Carl H. Moneyhon, “Carpetbaggers,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 19, 2020