NY at the start of the Civil War – Strange bedfellows

Copperheads: Harper’s Weekly, February 28, 1863; Wikipedia commons image

In today’s atmosphere of polarization in U.S. politics, it’s hard to imagine Democrats and Republicans on the same side of an issue as controversial as war.

While reading period newspaper articles on members of my family tree, I recently came across an article about a NY state resident from the Colvin family of my paternal tree. A state senator from 1860 to 1861, Andrew J. Colvin was described in his 1889 NY Times obituary as a “war democrat” during the civil war. It turns out that the democratic party splintered into two main groups on the issues of slavery and secession:

  • The “peace democrats” of the North were against war, based on their view that Abraham Lincoln was interfering with states’ rights to decide on issues like slavery. Also known as “copperheads” (like the poisonous copperhead snake), this faction believed that emancipation of slaves by the president was a violation of the constitution, and that peace should be negotiated with the southern states.
  • “War democrats” crossed party lines to support the civil war and Abraham Lincoln’s military policies. Most supported the emancipation of slaves.

The Republican party of Abraham Lincoln generally favored the war and emancipation. Their anti-slavery views were based to some extent on the idea that the U.S. economy would be stronger and faster growing if all laborers were part of a paid, free market system. A more extreme wing of the party, called “radical republicans”, were in favor of giving freed slaves full citizenship including the right to vote.

Charles T. Brewster, also from my paternal tree, was a NY State assemblyman in 1861 (this was before the Brewster and Colvin branches joined in the early 20th century). As a republican, he supported the civil war and expressed his fears about dangers facing the nation in a letter he wrote in January of 1861. He felt that a majority of army and navy officers at that time were southerners, and that Washington D.C. was in danger of invasion from the south, possibly even as a way to prevent the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln from taking place that March. It seems that the democrat Colvin and republican Brewster were allies, at least on the major issue of the day.

It’s possible that Charles T. Brewster was even more involved in the war effort than as a state assemblyman. His aunt Sally (Sarah) Brewster was married to a John S. Warren from Cold Spring NY. A large and prominent family of Warrens in Cold Spring included the civil war general Gouverneur Kemble Warren, who led troops at Gettsyburg and became known as the “Hero of Little Round Top”. Further research to determine if my John S. Warren was related to General Warren awaits!




  1. Period newspaper articles from fultonhistory.com.
  2. NY Times 1889 obituary for Andrew J. Colvin
  3. Breitbart.com description of peace democrats, 2013
  4. Documents from The Newberry Digital Collection on peace democrats, 2014.
  5. History Press Blog for an article about war democrats, 2014
  6. Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, University of Michigan, “Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of an Antislavery Nationalism”, 2007
  7. Encyclopedia Britannica online article about radical republicans, 2014
  8. Letter from Charles T. Brewster written January 24, 1861, in the Bennet family collection of Civil War correspondence and other material, 1832-1909, at the Brooklyn Historical Society library.
  9. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, web biography on Gouverneur Warren including his role at Little Round Top, 2002.

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