Excerpt from Letter from Rufus B. Bullock, of Georgia, to the Republican Senators and Representatives, in Congress Who Sustain the Reconstruction Acts
Published in May 21, 1870; reprinted on Making of America Books (Web site)
A Georgia governor describes what it is like to be a loyal supporter of Reconstruction in the sometimes hostile South
"For two years in Georgia I have been pursued by threats of personal violence and assassination.…"
Perhaps no figure was hated as much as the "carpetbagger" during the postwar years in the South. The term referred to Northerners who went to the South during or after the American Civil War (1861–65) with so few belongings they could fit them all in an old-fashioned traveling bag made of carpet. They were Republicans, viewed as opportunists who pressed for civil and voting rights for African Americans in order to further their own political careers. Indeed, many of them would become governors or congressmen in their newly adopted states, with the support of African American voters.
The carpetbaggers' very presence was a reminder of the South's crushing defeat at the hands of the North. Most Southerners could accept losing the war, but they could not accept the dramatic postwar changes, in which African Americans were allowed to own land, vote, and even hold elected office. "Well we might and did forgive the wrongs of war," Virginia soldier David Emmons Johnston (1845–1917) wrote in his 1914 memoirs, The Story of a Confederate Boy in the Civil War, "but how were we to overlook and forget the outrageous and shameful things done in the name of restoration of civil government, by the carpetbagger, Northern political pest and pirate.…"
The men who had been labeled carpetbaggers clearly felt the animosity. Albion W. Tourgée (1838–1905), an Ohio native and Union soldier who served as a Superior Court judge in North Carolina after the war, described Southern attitudes toward carpetbaggers in his 1880 book, A Fool's Errand, by One of the Fools.
To the Southern mind [carpetbagger] meant … a creature of the conqueror, a witness of their defeat, a mark of their degradation.… They hissed his name through lips hot with hate, because his presence was hateful to that dear, dead Confederacy which they held in tender memory.… He was to all that portion of the South … not only an enemy, but the representative in miniature of all their enemies.
Often these outsiders were accused of corruption, not exactly an uncommon occurrence in the fast-growth years after the war (see Chapter 17). Sometimes they were accused of offering bribes to get into office, accepting bribes from railroads and other industries, or pocketing some of the state treasury as taxes reached new, painful highs. In Mississippi, one tax increased fourteen-fold from 1869 to 1874, as noted in Kemper County Vindicated and A Peep at Radical Rule in Mississippi. "These [carpetbagger] legislators, having little or no property interest in the State, manifested on every occasion the most bitter feelings against the white people who owned all the property and paid all the taxes."
Yet many historians believe carpetbaggers have been unnecessarily criticized. As noted in "Carpetbaggers Reconsidered" in Reconstruction in the South, most of these Northerners arrived well before Southern African American men got the right to vote under the 1867 Reconstruction Acts (see Chapter 10), meaning they could not have come to use African Americans for their personal gain. They came because the postwar South was a land of economic opportunity, where they could buy land at cheap prices, raise a crop, or start a business venture. Nor were they penniless men who could fit all of their belongings in a single bag: Brothers Albert T. and Charles Morgan, for instance, left Wisconsin for Mississippi, where they poured $50,000 into a lumber business. Tourgée went to North Carolina with $5,000 to start his own nursery business.
But most of these newcomers' ventures failed. Drought and pests killed the crops, and in some areas, Southerners boycotted Yankee businesses (especially those owned by former Union soldiers). Most of the Northerners returned home. Those who stayed behind turned to politics, searching for a way to make the state more prosperous and friendly to business. They believed the state would be stronger in the long run with a free African American work force that could vote. As noted in "Carpetbaggers Reconsidered" in Reconstruction in the South, these Northerners believed "they had a right and a duty to be where they were and to do what they did. This was now their home, and they had a stake in its future as well as the future of the country as a whole."
Rufus B. Bullock (1834–1907) is sometimes not counted among the carpetbagger governors because he moved from New York to Georgia in 1857 or 1859, a couple of years before the Civil War started. But in many ways he fits the mold. Economic opportunities drew him South, where he laid telegraph and railroad lines. He turned to politics after the war, after learning the banks would not lend money to his business until Georgia was readmitted to the Union. He supported the Republican plan for Reconstruction—including the measures to open the ballot box and elected offices to African Americans—as the best way to mend Georgia's war-ravaged economy. And his efforts as governor would make him a hated figure among many white Southerners, who would accuse him of using millions of dollars in railroad bonds to enrich his friends.
In this 1870 letter to Congress, Bullock describes the difficulties he faced as a member of the delegation that drafted a new Georgia state constitution, and later as governor. Under the Reconstruction Acts (a congressional plan for re-making Southern society after the Civil War), high-ranking ex-Confederates could not vote on the new state constitution; and the Fourteenth Amendment (see Chapter 9) barred them from voting or holding office. At the same time, Congress required the Southern states to give African American men the ballot. The Georgia legislature elected in 1868 included the state's first African American members—as well as some former Confederates who should have been barred from office. The white majority of the legislature kicked out the African American members, arguing the right to vote did not necessarily mean the right to hold office. It was a recipe for racial strife, pitting white Southerners against African Americans and the carpetbaggers who pushed for their rights.
Bullock drafted his letter to Congress for a couple of reasons. He wanted more federal troops stationed in Georgia to make sure the federal rules for Reconstruction were followed. He also wanted to fire back at his critics—including some Democrats in Congress—who fueled the investigations into his alleged corruption. Most of all, he wanted to let Congress know what it was like to be a loyal supporter of Reconstruction in the sometimes hostile South.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Letter from Rufus B. Bullock, of Georgia, to the Republican Senators and Representatives, in Congress Who Sustain the Reconstruction Acts:
- The South was a land of economic opportunity during and after the Civil War, with cheap land and cities in need of new businesses. This drew thousands of Northerners, called "carpetbaggers," to the South, where they later became politically active as Republicans pushing for African Americans' rights.
- Most white Southerners resented the carpetbaggers, suspecting these Northerners were simply using African Americans to get elected to office and line their own pockets (which turned out to be true in some cases). Most Southern whites also opposed the postwar changes—new laws allowing African Americans to own land, vote, and hold elected office—that carpetbaggers enforced.
- In order to be readmitted to the Union, the Southern states had to write new state constitutions. Congress required the states to include African American men in the constitutional conventions and give them the right to vote, while excluding ex-Confederates from the conventions and the polls.
Excerpt from Letter from Rufus B. Bullock, of Georgia, to the Republican Senators and Representatives, in Congress Who Sustain the Reconstruction Acts
On the 4th day of July, 1867, a convention met in Atlanta to organize a Republican party in our State.… That convention resolved to sustain the reconstruction acts of Congress, and to endeavor to establish a government for the State under and by virtue of those acts. It was a small beginning, and the men who participated in that organization were surrounded by all the malignity of rebel hate, inflamed and embittered by the endorsement of the colored men so lately their slaves. And the little band who thus bravely met were threatened on all sides and their lives were by no means secure.
In November of the same year an election was had to decide by a vote whether a convention under the reconstruction acts should be called, and at the same time for the election of delegates to the convention should its call be ratified. In this election the Republicans of the State were successful. The convention was called, and during the winter of 1867–'8 a constitution was framed in which there isno sign of proscription, no test oaths, no disfranchisement. All men of sound mind, who have not been convicted of a felony, and who are twenty-one years of age and residents of the State, are under it entitled and to hold office.…
Under and by virtue of the [Reconstruction] act of June 25, 1868 [which readmitted Georgia to the Union], the General Assembly convened on the 4th of July of the same year. Among those elected by the opposite party [Democrats] were at least thirty [former Confederates] who were especially prohibited by the act of June 25, and by previous acts, from holding office, they being disqualified by the 3d section of the fourteenth amendment.… Notwithstanding this presentation of facts, however, the commanding general deemed it wise to make no objection to those members retaining their seats, and the Legislature this organized in violation of the law, having gone through the form of adopting the conditions then required in the reconstruction acts, the State, by military order, was remanded to the civil government thus established.
In September of the same year this legislative organization excluded from their seats some twenty-eight of its members, who were of African descent.
At this point the contest originating from the enfranchisement of the colored men was renewed with all its bitterness. While the question of this expulsion was being considered by the Legislature, I, in an official communication, impressed upon them, in the strongest terms which I was capable of using, the great wrong which was about to be perpetrated, and, of course, thereby stimulated a renewal of our political animosities. Earnest appeals were made to me by frightened and discouraged Republicans to acquiesce in this outrage, and offers of high political preferment and advancement were indirectly tendered to me by the opposite party to effect the same object, accompanied by threats of the vengeance that would be visited upon me if I did not accept their terms.…
If away out on the confines of civilization a settler is threatened in his cabin by a prowling band of Indians, troops are at once moved, money is lavishly spent, and the whole country is aroused for his protection; but, on the other hand, if white and African American friends of the Union are whipped and murdered in the South by prowling bands of disguised Kuklux, the President is prevented from granting protection because the laws do not authorize him; and when men or delegations come to the capital from the South to plead with Congress for help and for their rights, haste is made to put them under "investigation" with the vain hope that the lies of the interested rebels may have some foundation in fact.… While we risk our lives and our property, will you aid in taking from us that which is dearer than all these—our good name and our reputation?
… The most atrocious lies and insinuations have been telegraphed from Washington to different parts of the country, and circulated among members of both houses, to the effect that I have attempted to influence the votes of Senators by offers of Georgia bonds or money, and every possible means had been employed to create prejudice against myself and the Republican party of Georgia.…
These infamous lies have a common origin, and have been coined and well put into circulation by men who hypocritically pretend to belong to the Republican party, but who are, and have been, acting in concert with the rebel Democracy in Georgia.
For two years in Georgia I have been pursued by threats of personal violence and assassination, and, during that period, my friends have believed my life was in danger. For two years I have been pursued by the most villainous slanders that rebel ingenuity could invent, charging corruption in office, personal immorality, and in every way impeaching my character as a man and an officer. One after another these slanders have been worn out and abandoned only to be renewed in some other form. Every attempt to sustain any one of them, and in every instance, has proved an utter and shameless failure.…
Whatever else may happen to me, I shall leave the office of Governor of Georgia with clean hands, and without having performed any act for which my children or my friends shall have occasion to blush, but with my private fortune greatly diminished by the heavy expenses which I have been subjected to sustain myself and the loyal men of Georgia.…
What happened next …
Bullock quietly resigned as governor in October 1871 and fled to New York after learning his Democratic enemies planned to impeach him (attempt to remove him from office for charges of wrongdoing). Specifically, Bullock borrowed millions of dollars in bonds, and critics said he used the money to make his railroad industry friends rich. In reality, Bullock used the money to rebuild some of the railroad lines destroyed during the war, improve the schools, and move the capital from Milledgeville to Atlanta—all facts presented at an 1874 trial in which Bullock was cleared of any wrongdoing. Bullock stayed in Atlanta after his trial and became a successful businessman, serving as president of the Atlantic Cotton Mills and director of the Union Pacific Railroad. He returned to Albion, New York, as his health was failing in 1903, and he died four years later.
Carpetbagger officials in other states would face the same suspicions of corruption, as the Southern states borrowed millions of dollars and raised millions more in new taxes after the war. But reality supported the need for these debts: Rebuilding the postwar South was expensive. Roads and railroad lines had to be rebuilt. So did government buildings in certain devastated cities. Many Southern states found themselves building their first public schools. While there were some corrupt officials who found ways to enrich themselves along the way, historians believe they were few, and they were not all carpetbaggers.
In fact, carpetbaggers deserve credit for some of the positive features in the new Southern state constitutions, as noted in the article "Carpetbagger Constitutional Reform in the South Atlantic States, 1867–68," from the 1961 issue of Journal of Southern History. The North Carolina constitution guaranteed all residents a public education, and the constitutions in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina prohibited officials from requiring people to own property in order to vote—all measures championed by carpetbaggers. These new constitutions also protected homeowners from losing their property for unpaid taxes, and they made taxes the same throughout the state.
But the carpetbaggers would face resistance, and often violence, for supporting civil and political rights for African Americans. That was an unforgivable act in the minds of many white Southerners, and carpetbaggers would pay the price. Some were killed, or their family members murdered, or their homes burned to the ground (see Chapter 15). In the decades that followed, they would be painted as the villains of Reconstruction. "'Carpetbagger' was only a word," historian Richard Nelson Current concluded in his book, Those Terrible Carpetbaggers, but it "stuck and continues to stick."
Did you know …
- Bullock was mentioned a couple of times in Margaret Mitchell's epic Civil War novel, Gone with the Wind. Of Bullock's election to governor in 1868, Mitchell wrote: "If the capture of Georgia by [Union general William Tecumseh] Sherman had caused bitterness, the final capture of the state's capitol by the Carpetbaggers, Yankees, and negroes caused an intensity of bitterness such as the state had never known before.… And Rhett Butler was a friend of the hated Bullock!"
- After Bullock left office, more than 130 years would pass before Georgia elected another Republican governor—Sonny Perdue (1946–), in 2002.
Consider the following …
- How did Bullock make his case for more federal troops in Georgia? Do you think they were needed?
- What was it like to be a carpetbagger in the South?
- Do you think newcomers from the North should have been allowed to participate in Southern politics and run for office?
For More Information
Bullock, Rufus B. Letter from Rufus B. Bullock, of Georgia, to the Republican Senators and Representatives, in Congress Who Sustain the Reconstruction Acts. Washington, DC: Chronicle Print, 1870. Also available at Making of America Books. http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa;idno=AFJ... (accessed on September 20, 2004).
Current, Richard Nelson. "Carpetbaggers Reconsidered." In Reconstruction in the South. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1972.
Current, Richard Nelson. Those Terrible Carpetbaggers: A Reinterpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Johnston, David Emmons. The Story of a Confederate Boy in the Civil War. Portland, OR: Glass & Prudhomme Co., 1914. Also available at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Libraries. (accessed on September 20, 2004).
Lynch, James D. Kemper County Vindicated and A Peep at Radical Rule in Mississippi. New York: E. J. Hale & Son, 1879.
Scroggs, Jack B. "Carpetbagger Constitutional Reform in the South Atlantic States, 1867–1868." Journal of Southern History (1961).
Tourgée, Albion W. A Fool's Errand, by One of the Fools. New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1880.