The age of the Civil War was a complicated time period for the burgeoning United States of America. The year is 1875. Telling the story of George Thompson is an honor to whoever is interested in the life of a Northerner turned Carpetbagger. Thompson was a soldier in the Northern Army, who fought in the 32nd regiment from New York. The Civil War started as a result of the deliberation about slavery.
People in the North thought slavery was inhumane and should be outlawed but opulent plantation owners in the South held the opposite belief because slavery was their main source of income. Southern plantation owners made their fortunes on the backs of other people’s labor. Why would they want to give that up? When Abraham Lincoln became president in 1860 and took an anti-slavery stance, the Southern landowners were less than pleased. Nine states rejected the union, seceded and created the Confederation.
(Davis 142-143)(Hummel 131). Many Northerners believed this proclamation would be a threat to democracy and would separate all of the states into individual collapsing nations. With that idea in mind, the Confederation bombarded a United States fort, Fort Sumter, to signal the beginning of the war. (The Civil War Society’s Encyclopedia of the Civil War 131) . The Civil War was the epic drama of American history, like the Iliad, the War of Roses, or The Thirty Years War all rolled into one (Smith 994). Though George Thompson was only one person, his experiences in the war and afterward were symbolic of many Northern soldiers turned Carpetbaggers. When the war ended, everyone was tasked with the challenge of rebuilding the nation into the positive parts of what it once was. This period of time was coined with the unambiguous name of The Reconstruction.
With the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, this challenge was severely impacted. Part of the reconstruction effort was the creation of The 10% Plan that would allow a state to be recognized as part of the United States if 10% of the population agreed to live by the federal laws and support the constitution with their actions (Davis 429). Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, proposed a similar plan to Lincoln’s but Congress did not take his version well. Nicknamed The Radical Republicans, Johnson’s Congress wanted to use their governing power to ensure the Southern states rewrote their constitutions to abolish slavery (Barrett-Osborne 82). Another act proving the strength of The Radical Republicans was the creation of The Civil Rights Act of 1866, which stated that anyone born in the United States was a citizen of the United States regardless of race or color (Osborne 96). Some people moved south to the help the broken souls shattered by the war, but that was not George Thomson’s case.
Thompson stayed in the south after the war when he saw there was an opportunity to profit. Some Southerners would call this kind of Northerner a Carpetbagger. He did not mind this name as most of the others like him also travelled with bags made out of the same material as carpets. With the little money Thompson had but mostly as a result of the charity of an employer, he purchased a small shop and started a bank. At first, he only managed savings accounts because he didn’t have enough capital but after operating for a bit, he was able to loan and store money. One of his most profitable business practices was to lend money to the poor with low interest rates. If they were late on payment, the rate would soar netting an astounding profit.
Finding customers was as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. If not for the intense desire of Southerners to rebuild their lives, he would not be where he is now. This was how Thompson, as a carpetbagger, carved out a substantial living during the Reconstruction. (The Civil War Society’s Encyclopedia of the Civil War 63)Before the war, Thompson lived in the grand state of New York.
His father was a banker and his mother stayed at home tending to the care of his family. He had a brother and two sisters. His brother, who was two years his senior, taught him that there is no good in this world and life is what you make of it. His sisters were two and four years younger than he was and were very different from each other. One married a wealthy politician and lived a fancy society life on the island of Manhattan. The youngest sister married a farmer, worked hard in the fields and sadly died at a very young age. Thompson was raised to become banker like his father but when there was talk of a war, he felt the need to serve his country. When the war began, Thompson was about thirty years old, in good shape and ready to help his country not be torn into two.
He believed this was his chance to do something meaningful with my life and to have a purpose much more than banker ever could. Thompson made it through every battle relatively unscathed until in The Battle of Sailor’s Creek in Virginia where he took a musket ball to the foot. The aftermath of that injury left him with a cane and a wooden replacement foot. (Smith 562)At the conclusion of the war, Thompson decided to stay in Virginia because he didn’t have a wife or kids in New York and never wanted to disappoint his father by admitting he didn’t want to be a banker. Thompson wanted to start over and Virginia was a natural place to do that.
Thompson lived in Richmond for a couple of years and spent the money he had made during the war. After burning through that money at an alarmingly fast pace, Thompson realized he wouldn’t be able to survive on this alone. With what little money he had left, he bought a train ticket to Kinston, North Carolina. Thompson wasn’t sure how far south he wanted to go but he felt he needed to be further south. During this ride, he met a soldier in the Confederate Army named Thaddeus Cadwallader. With the war being over, they were no longer on opposite sides. The train trip was quite long so the two men talked about their experiences in the war, about their joy and fear and about their plans for the future. Cadwallader explained to Thompson the gold that the reconstruction could bear, if a person knew how to make it.
He also explained to Thompson about how the carpetbaggers reputation, as a whole, was not a good one. Cadwallader still sustained some of the Confederate ideology and didn’t exactly trust Thompson’s motives. Cadwallader didn’t care because he believed black people were overlooked and that Thompson was establishing a new life to help them. (Smith 727). During the ride, Thompson told of his experiences in The Battle of Sailor’s Creek, where more than 6,000 of his fellow soldiers were captured, including many of their generals. (Sheehan-Dean 668). During that battle was where Thompson was shot in the foot. The memory of that battle along with the cane and wooden foot were a constant reminder of the horrors of The Civil War.
When the train reached Thompson’s stop, they said their farewells, knowing they would never see each other again. That was a life-changing trip for Thompson who will never forget Thaddeus Cadwallader. Their journey together may have been over but Thompson had so much more to experience. He wanted to go even further south, deep into the heart of Georgia. He managed to make the balance of the trip on foot, even with his prosthetic limb. He even had the opportunity to make a little bit of money along the journey.
The first thing Thompson bought with his money was a tarp so he could create an A-line tent similar to what he learned to make during his time as a soldier. Thompson was reminded of The Battle of Five Forks on a cool night in 1870, he had about a dollar in his pocket enough to get him through the next couple of days. That battle destroyed the Confederate position and many soldiers were captured by the Northern effort (Sheehan-Dean 637). When Thompson heard an unfamiliar noise, he immediately sat upright. His ears keened to hear the source of the sound. After a number of minutes, he started to relax only to be startled by the sound of his tarp being ripped.
He was surrounded by four men, who proceeded to rob him and beat him to a pulp. The next day, Thompson was laying at his campsite barely able to move, waiting to see if anybody would magically appear to help him. As Thompson fell in and out of consciousness, he remembered his brother telling him that life was what you make of it. As soon as he was able, Thompson got up and limped over to the store. He had some money stashed away where no one could find it and bought what he needed.
With this ceremonial beating, Thompson decided he would stay in this town because he realized that with a gun, you can rob one man but with a bank, one man can rob the world.The first thing Thompson did after he recovered was find work so he could save up money to buy the property for the bank. He worked on a farm to earn some money. On a hot day, like many days in Georgia, a vicious fight broke out between two of the laborers. It was chaos, people joined in and others try to help. But in the end, Thompson was the one to break up the fight.
After that incident, the owner of the farm thanked Thompson for his valiant effort by buying him the property for the bank. Even though it was a rundown, old building, he knew he could make the structure look respectable and befitting the image of a bank. Thompson would work on the farm during the week and on the weekend he would renovate the home of his future bank.
From trips going back and forth from the general store where he purchased construction supplies, Thompson became acquainted with the store’s clerk, Ann. She was as beautiful as a summer morning and smart as could be. Even though he was concerned about using the General Store as his temporary bank, Thompson knew he would never be one of those people who ended up permanently in debt or even bankrupt by missing a payment. (Hummel 324) One day, Ann offered to help Thompson with painting and he gladly accepted the offer, despite it being considered to be improper. They barely accomplished anything that day because once they started talking, the work became secondary. They were smitten and so happy to have found each other. What a wonderful time it was in Thompson’s life when he saw the opening of his bank and his marriage shortly afterward.
He and his wife were partners in the bank and would ride it to being rich. Their first big customer was a Carpetbagger like George. But this Carpetbagger was also a politician.(Smith 970) Since they the two men had a similar background, George was considered to be trustworthy.
The Thompsons gave the Carpetbagger a savings account that locked up his questionably acquired money until his oldest child was an adult. The money from that transaction became the seed money for future banking activity. With the seed money in hand, the Thompsons were able to start giving out loans.
There was a large bank the next town over but many of the local people preferred to do business with the Thompsons. The loans granted were fair but if payments were missed, which happened often, the interest rate would skyrocket netting a huge payday for the bank. Everything was going well in the world.
Ann was pregnant, and the bank was a stalwart in the community. The Thompsons lived above the bank which allowed them to avoid having to travel long distances to work. One night when George was reviewing the profits from the prior month, he heard a noise downstairs. At first, he regarded it as nothing and continued to work.
But when George heard it again, he crawled out of bed and grabbed his pistol. He bought this exact pistol because of a General from the Confederate army, James Stuart, who believe it was a symbol of power. Although he was a Confederate officer, Stewart knew how to shoot, which is something Thompson admired.
(The Civil War Society’s Encyclopedia of the Civil War 350-353) Ann asked what was happening but was told not to worry. Thompson quietly slipped into the hallway and down the stairs, as quietly as a panther. When he got to the bank and looked around, it seemed to be empty. There was no response to the “Whos there?” he shouted.
Thompson stayed quietly in the bank enlisting all of his senses to see if he could pinpoint the intruder’s location. One of his senses told him something was wrong. The skin on the back of his neck felt the chilling sensation of metal pressed against it.
Thompson gasped for breath as he knew he had been bested. A raspy voice demanded he opened the safe. Thompson reminded himself that his life’s work was in there and that he couldn’t give it up, but at the same time what good was his life’s work if he was dead. Thompson complied with the man’s orders and opened the safe. Thompson had heard armed robbery was on the rise but never imagined he would have been a victim of that treachery (Smith 730). The thieves were merciful and left a few dollars to help in the future.
George sat on the floor contemplating what just happened until Ann came downstairs. She was his rock and she helped him realize that the success they already had was a harbinger of what was to come. Setbacks always happen but she assured him they would redouble the effort to reestablish the bank. How could he not have believed her? She was his everything. It didn’t matter if all of their money was stolen as long as he had Ann. After that, everything else would be alright.
Despite all Thompson had been through and experienced, he believed there was hope for humanity. He believed he would see times of greater prosperity, increased unity, and understanding in the future. After The Civil War, the United States was once again united when the seceded states came back to join the others.
He believed that although the Civil War and reconstruction was one of the toughest times for many people, there was much to be learned. War showed the complexity of humans nature, in wartime and afterward. Thompson learned to understand that no path was always a smooth one and there would always be war, hate, and crime. But in choosing to reject the idea that that hatred was necessary, he was able to feel optimistic about his future. There was still much work to be done to solidify the democracy and chipping away at the pillars of hate would continue to work to that end. Thompson’s hope for the future was that of peace and prosperity, which would allow Americans to come together as one population and allow his Carpetbagger title to melt away simply into being a Southerner.