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  • Writer's pictureLisa Sysun

Grace, Gumption and Glory: Kate Chase Sprague, part 1.

Updated: Jan 2, 2019

Kate Chase came of age in Washington D.C., just as Lincoln began his first term as president. She was beautiful, charming, politically astute and equally as ambitious as her father, Salmon Chase. Both she and Salmon suffered from a bad case of “Presidential Fever.” Each longed to occupy the White House, he as President and she as First Lady.

William and Kate around the time of their wedding in 1863. Photo by Matthew Brady, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The meteoric rise and fall of such a complex woman at the pinnacle of Washington society during the Civil War and the turbulent times afterward is a memorable topic indeed.

Kate photo by Julius Ulke, 1860.

Becoming Kate

Catherine Jane Chase, born August 13, 1840, is “…pronounced pretty,” [i] although her father records otherwise in his journal. She is the second daughter for Salmon and the first for Eliza, or Lizzie, his second wife. After Lizzie dies from tuberculosis, Salmon marries Sara Bella Dunlop Ludlow. She is a member of one of Cincinnati’s founding families. They welcome Janet, or Nettie, in 1847. Death shadows the Chase family, as it did many families in the nineteenth century. Salmon loses four other daughters to disease. He doesn’t remarry after Belle dies in 1852, also from tuberculosis.

While living in Cincinnati, Salmon gains prominence as an abolitionist attorney. He begins by defending fugitive slaves captured in Ohio and even argues the constitutionality of the fugitive slave laws before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1849, Salmon is elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio on the Free-Soil ticket (he coins the phrase “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men”) and lives in Washington, D.C. on and off for the next six years.

Shortly after Nettie’s birth, seven-year-old Kate is sent to Henrietta Haine’s school for girls on Madison Avenue in New York. Struggling with tuberculosis at this point, Belle finds the burden of caring for herself, a newborn baby and Kate too much to bear with Salmon away for much of the time. Miss Henrietta is a tough taskmaster. She plans rigorous courses of study in history, languages, math, composition and religion.[ii] Belle writes Kate often and tells her how much the family misses her, signing her letters “your affectionate Mother.”[iii] Salmon, on the other hand, parents Kate with a combination of love and guilt; emphasizing the guilt and mishandling the love.[iv] He regularly writes and presses nine-year-old Kate to keep a journal and write more descriptive letters to him. Criticizing her letter writing, Salmon nags that “What is worth doing at all is worth doing well.”[v] Kate, already becoming a bit headstrong, rebels somewhat. Her father “grieves whenever she deviates…from the straight line of duty.” Saying “you do not always speak the exact truth…if you do not overcome it…it will grow upon you and ruin you forever.”[vi] His perplexing mix of loving concern and emotional distance is due, in part, to his preoccupation with sin and salvation. This attitude especially affects Kate. She will grow up to be a woman who craves demonstrative, unconditional love and who will use politics as a way to achieve that end. [vii]

Kate in Columbus, around the age of fourteen. Photo by Matthew Brady, courtesy Library of Congress.

Fall 1854 finds her attending Maria Eastman’s school in Aston Ridge, PA after tiring of Miss Haine’s school in New York. She doesn’t like it, or it’s headmistress either, although Miss Eastman allows card playing and doesn’t read her student’s correspondence. Leaving Aston Ridge the following year, Kate returns to Ohio, where her father is campaigning for governor. She then heads to New York, outfitting herself with a wardrobe fit for a young lady stepping into adulthood.[viii] A slim margin elects Salmon. When he assumed the governorship in 1856, Kate attends Lewis Heyl’s Esther Institute in Columbus, a finishing school where she studies music, painting and language. Her studies also include private French lessons at home.[ix] For the first time since she was nine, Kate is living with her father. Nettie is there too. At sixteen, she ends her formal education and becomes his official hostess, interior decorator and confidential secretary. Salmon’s sister, Aunt Alice, moves in and rounds up the family to four.

Salmon then sends Kate to Columbus to set up the house he has purchased, as there is no official Governor’s mansion. During this time, she makes herself invaluable to her father, so that he would never entertain to send her away again. From 1857 to 1860, Kate evolves from a well-educated girl with a packed social calendar to an astute woman who could converse intelligently with any politician in America. She likely looks upon Jessie Benton Frémont (1856 Republican Presidential nominee John Fremont’s wife) as a role model. Jessie is admired; songs, posters stories and slogans tout her as a sparkling political wife and as a symbol of the Republicans’ commitment to partisan women.[x]

First Hostess

Alice dies suddenly in 1859 and leaves Kate in full-charge of his household. Eager to show off his beautiful daughter, Salmon allows Kate to hold large state banquets and intimate dinners, to charm her father’s friends and colleagues. He has “the presidential fever”, and his daughter is only too happy to encourage it. In the meantime, Salmon is reelected to his former Senate seat when his second term as Governor ends.

Nettie, Salmon and Kate, summer of 1857. Photo by Matthew Brady, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Not actively seeking, but not actively dismissing the rally of support for the Republican nomination, Salmon loses to Abraham Lincoln on the third ballot at the National Convention in May 1860. Kate is bitterly disappointed as she could think of no one better than herself as First Lady. Lincoln is elected President on November 6, 1860, defeating Douglas, Breckenridge, and Bell. Undaunted, Chase plans to return to his Senate seat, but Lincoln seemingly has other plans.

In Providence, RI, William Sprague, co-owner of A. W. Sprague & Company spends an astronomical $100,000 on his gubernatorial campaign. He wins the election (buys, according to witnesses) on May 29th by 1,532 votes.[xi] At twenty-six years of age, William ostensibly runs the family business; consisting mainly of textile, lumber and granite mills. A. W. Sprague & Company owns the largest calico-printing mill system in the world. The nine mammoth Sprague Mills weave a combined 800,000 yards of cloth plus 1.4 million yards of calico each week.[xii]

The (rented then purchased) three-story brick townhouse at the corner of E and Sixth Streets, Washington, D.C.

E and Sixth Street Mansion

Salmon takes both daughters to Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4th and introduces them to the President. Kate attends the inaugural ball, resplendent in a white satin gown, complete with an overskirt of cherry silk festooned with artificial white roses. A crown of matching roses complements her auburn hair and hazel eyes, establishing her personal precedent (and much-emulated style.) Seven weeks after the inauguration, Lincoln nominates Chase for Secretary of the Treasury. Salmon moves his family and assorted staff from Columbus, Ohio to a rented mansion in Washington, D.C., roughly ten blocks from the Treasury Department adjacent to the White House.

After Salmon’s confirmation, Kate becomes the second-highest ranking lady in Washington, DC. Only Mary Todd Lincoln comes before her in social precedence. Kate is twenty-one and single. Mary is forty-three and married with three sons. Kate has youth, beauty, intelligence and an astute grasp of politics. Mary is jealous of this and considers her a rival for social eminence, fuming over Kate’s failure to cede appropriate deference to her social superior. Abraham Lincoln pronounces Kate “young and handsome.”

Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln's maid, confidante, and dressmaker, sums up Kate as “Quite a Belle in Washington” and “worthy of all the admiration she received.”[xiii]

Young William Sprague, photo courtesy of PA MOLLUS Commandery.

Kate and William Sprague meet briefly in September at a ball dedicating an Oliver Hazard Perry monument in Cleveland, OH. Salmon’s friend, Richard Parsons, comments that Kate’s beauty and William’s political and economic prominence made the two seem “a perfect pairing off.”[xiv] She finds him handsome; dark gray eyes, set, so they turn down at the orners, with light brown hair, he possesses a fair, boyish complexion.[xv]

Even before the election, the country was divided on the issue of slavery. The (second) Fugitive Slave law enacted by Congress (1850) and Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) set the country on a slow boil. South Carolina secedes from the Union in December 1860, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas in February 1861. April sees Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina secede. Confederates attack Fort Sumter on April 12th, and with that, the country plunges into Civil War. Four slave states stay in the Union: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. The First Battle of Bull Run takes place in July. Kate sees the “boy governor,” William, astride a magnificent white horse, as he leads the First Rhode Island Detached Militia and Battery to Washington, DC. He wears a black felt hat with a jaunty yellow feather. She can be found visiting military camps around the capital, especially “Camp Sprague.”

Kate visiting Brig. Gen. John J. Abercrombie and his staff. Abercrombie commanded a division of Federal troops that protected Washington. Courtesy of National Archives.

Kate and William’s courtship suffers a setback. William is implicated in the “Great Cotton Caper.” The Sprague business needs cotton, which is a rare commodity during the war. The administration requires permits to purchase cotton from Southerners loyal to the Union. Unable to easily coerce Kate’s father, who, as the Secretary of the Treasury, has the authority to issue the cotton permits, William embarks on a scheme to circumvent the Treasury department and get cotton out of Texas with the help of Harris Hoyt. His endeavors risk treason, but William is never formally charged.

Chain Bridge was a popular place for the Union Army to access the countryside encampments from Fairfax County. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Kate also learns of William’s dalliance with Mary Eliza Viall. The Vialls are among Providence’s finest and most conservative families. Mary, a believer in free love, becomes pregnant in 1859. He refuses to marry her and leaves for Europe, under the guise of needing a respite from the rigors of running the business. Mary’s parents arrange a hasty marriage to a military man named Anderson. He would soon abandon her. Undaunted, Mary writes a thinly veiled biographical novel and excuses William’s behavior. She vilifies Kate and maintains her affection for William. Kate and William cease courting mid-October 1862. Her considerable social duties include visits to defensive camps around the capital, like Chain Bridge. She also entertains her admirers, including Charles Sumner, John Hay (one of Lincoln’s administrative assistants), James Garfield (future President) and Carl Schurz.

William resigns his post as governor in March 1863 to represent his state in the U.S. Senate. Washington is “mad with gaiety…there are three or four grand parties a night; theaters, operas, fairs…everything to make its denizens forget that war and sorrow are in the land.” Kate and William also begin once more to correspond. His address progresses from “My dear Katie,” to “My dearest Kate,” to “My darling Katie.” William’s closings also become more intimate, from “Devotedly” or “Affectionately yours,” to “affectionately, devotedly & longingly all yours.” He proposes in late May, and Kate accepts.[xvi]

"...she had arrived."

The wedding is the social event of the season and takes place at 7:30 pm on November 12th at Salmon’s mansion. William chooses as his attendants three Rhode Island military officers, with whom he has only a formal relationship. Kate chooses her sister Nettie and cousin Alice and soon-to-be niece, Ida, as attendants. Gossip contends that William is attracted to Kate for her political advantage, and Kate to William for his considerable fortune. The ceremony, conducted by Episcopalian Bishop Thomas Clark (of Rhode Island) lasts less than 30 minutes.

Kate in her wedding gown.

At 8:30 pm, unseen hands open the doors to the back half of the double parlor for the start of the reception. Kate stands resplendent in a white velvet and lace gown, crowned by a magnificent Tiffany diamond-and-pearl tiara. A “brilliant concourse of guests” includes President Lincoln, unaccompanied by Mary, who was still mourning the death of their son Willie, former and current cabinet members, and Lord Lyons, the British minister to the United States (considered by some the onetime front-runner for Kate’s hand.) Also in attendance is Kate’s friend John Hay (Lincoln’s private secretary), a multitude of politicians and officers of the army and navy. The reception included 500 guests.

Washington caterer F. P. Crutcher provides galantines of truffles, pâtés, terrines, aspics, and veal “salade,” eighteen gallons of oysters, fourteen dozen roast partridges and three hundred dinner rolls – all for less than $200. Guests also dine on over two hundred pounds of lamb, beef, and veal. Kate arranges for cases of claret, champagne, brandy and “segars.”

Kate leads off the dancing by partnering with her father’s old friend, Richard Parsons. Frederick Kroell composes the “Kate Chase Wedding March,” and it’s such a hit that the assemblage demands that the marine band play it twice more before the end of the evening. The whirl of waltzes lasts past midnight.[xvii] The frenzy of spending leaves her father’s bank account overdrawn by $156.98 the day of the wedding. Regardless of the expense, the Chases regard the wedding as a brilliant social and political success.

Of the gifts the couple received, the Washington Evening Star wrote, “The bridal presents are said to exceed those of any modern date,” estimating their worth at $100,000 while the New York Times opted for the $60,000 range.[xviii]

"Oh darling, how could you serve me so?"

The large bridal party travels from Washington to Philadelphia to New York. While staying at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, fire erupts twice in the same night. William, Kate, Nettie and Alice arrive at Young Orchard (William mothers’ Fanny’s home), and discover it decorated in red, white and blue bunting, like a “horse fair.” Kate is aghast and also notices none of Rhode Island’s social elite attend her reception. It seems Providence society remembers the Mary Viall (Anderson) matter.

The honeymoon ends when Kate and William return to Washington. William leaves for Rhode Island to catch up on business matters. His letters to Kate become dry and factual, in contrast to his long, emotive courtship letters. He has won her, and the chase (pun intended) is over. William decides to spend the holidays with his mother and siblings in Rhode Island while Kate stays in Washington with her Father and Nettie. Kate tries to lure her new husband home by inviting the Spragues for the holiday season, but William’s sister Mary Ann politely refuses on behalf of the family. Kate often writes, him less so and when he does, it’s “one poor note.” The new bride is lonely.

Kate subdues her loneliness by attending to both William and Salmon’s need of her political services. She helps her husband with his day-to-day Senate life.

The circulation of the Pomeroy Circular (a pamphlet that Chase’s unofficial presidential election committee uses as an attack on Lincoln) along with a charge of fraud and corruption against the Treasury Department, cause Salmon to tender his resignation in February 1864. Lincoln refuses to accept the offer. William defends Salmon against several Senate Republicans, even getting into a drunken brawl.

By mid-July, William agrees to share the E & 6th Street mansion with his father-in-law. Kate and Nettie spend much of the summer in Newport. Fall finds William and Kate commencing negotiations with Joseph B. Varnum to purchase the three-story neoclassical brick building for $30,000. Salmon tenders his resignation, once again, in June, this time over a patronage dispute. Lincoln accepts, stating they had “reached a point of mutual embarrassment in our official relation that it seems can not be overcome.” Salmon, now a private citizen, campaigns for Lincoln and other Republicans.

So Much Black

The tension in the Sprague marriage begins to bubble to the surface. They begin to send angry letters to one another. William chastises Kate by writing, “I would have you act womanly, religiously, lovingly–such is your nature controlled by pride.” Kate resists William’s attempts to force her to adhere to nineteenth-century standards of submissive womanhood.

He also feels she should forget their “disagreements.” She is three months pregnant with their first child at Christmas time. William gives her a gift of money and urges her to remember that cash signifies “power for happiness and usefulness…” The money is a bitter disappointment, as Kate had mentioned a certain Tiffany jewel on several occasions. William is also disappointed. Instead of being married to the daughter of a cabinet member and presidential hopeful, he finds himself the son-in-law of a man isolated by the political fallout of his presidential aspirations.

Lincoln nominates Salmon to fill the deceased Roger B. Taney’s position as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to keep the radicals happy (and some say to keep him out of presidential politics.) Kate seems pleased and makes a pregnant appearance at her father’s swearing-in ceremony during the winter. She continues work for William’s political interests – and doesn’t comment on his cotton acquisition or the ensuing cover-up. Spring 1865 pushes the Texas cotton caper to the back burner. After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln makes a speech about reconstructing the Union from a White House balcony. John Wilkes Booth listens and boasts, “That is the last speech he will ever make.”

He assassinates Lincoln on April 14th at Ford’s Theatre while the President and First Lady were attending Our American Cousin. Hearing of the attack on another cabinet member (Stanton), Salmon remains home, believing he can be of no service this point. Kate and Nettie are in their rooms and hear the solemn boots of the night guards outside their windows. Following Lincoln’s passing, their father administers the oath of office to Vice-President Andrew Johnson.

Lincoln lying in state in the East Room of the White House. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, 1865.

Kate is one of only seven women present for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral in the East Room, the largest room in the White House. She’s has been standing for hours with the crowd, sweltering and swathed in black. Seven months pregnant with her first child – Kate is out of her confinement to attend the funeral services. The room is heavy with sadness and uncertainty. Her father would later write, “Everybody seems overwhelmed.” Black wool and mourning crepe cover the large mirrors. Fragrant white flowers from the White House greenhouse adorn the room.

Their sweetness does little to diminish the sadness and disbelief of those standing testament to the slain president. Kate remarks to her husband and father that black fabric adorns every home and shop in the capital. She adds that retail shops have run out of it and that women have taken to ripping up their black dresses. The bells toll and the minute guns boom from nearby forts. The President, who once danced with Kate, much to his wife’s dismay, lies dead at the center of the eleven-foot high catafalque. Kate notices that someone shaved his beard.

Canonchet was an extravagant Victorian mansion, bristling with towers, turrets, bay windows, verandas, and decorative ironwork, all piled together into one huge, picturesque Sprague summer home. In 1909, Canonchet was destroyed in a spectacular fire.

Summer finds the Spragues distracted by the conversion of the “Sprague Farm,” a 350- acre property William had purchased on Narragansett Bay, into “Canonchet,” a 68-room mansion named after a 17th-century Indian chief. Their son and first child, William Sprague the fifth (Willie) is born on June 16, 1865. The Centralia Sentinel newspaper comments (satirically?) that Kate’s mother-in-law (Fanny) bestows $500,000 upon Kate for the birth of her first grandson, and another $100,000 upon Willie himself.[i]

European Sojurn

Spring 1866 finds Kate and Nettie taking their first trip to Europe with Willie and Maggie, his nurse, in tow. They travel from London to Paris and Brussels, then back to London. William’s letters to Kate bear a strong resemblance to his courtship letters from years’ prior. The letters are longer and more emotive, stressing William’s desire to be a better man and his need for Kate. Their correspondent relationship fared much better than when they were with one another. This may explain why she favored long trips away. He writes “…It is your absence, my dear, when your worth is acknowledged.” Only in letter writing could Kate hope to revive the romance in her marriage. Each time she traveled abroad, William resumed courting her.

While traveling, he encourages Kate to “spend money…she should not refuse to obey him in that matter.” William establishes a pattern that compensates for his marital inadequacies by throwing money at his wife.

His longing keeps his baser instincts in check. “I am glad I am not pleased anymore with the rattle of other women’s dresses.” Although that summer, he wrote a detailed letter to Kate describing his attraction to another woman. Kate, likely hurt, put on a brave face. William also struggles with alcoholism. Many letters refer to “dyspepsia,” a code name used for William’s terrible hangovers. Unfortunately, Kate is unable to turn William into a model Republican man, he came and went as he pleased, drank as much as he wanted, and continued to act erratically in public. Both Kate’s husband and father fail to celebrate her 26th birthday in August.

Kate and Willie celebrate Christmas with Salmon in Washington with endless parties and balls. President Johnson’s receptions, hosted by his daughter Martha Patterson, prove a highlight of the social season. At the presidential New Year’s reception, which Kate attends, the Marine band plays “Hail to the Chief” when the Grants enter the room. She talks with Ulysses and Julia Grant, all the while knowing he represents a major impediment to her father’s presidential aspirations. Kate does host one dance that winter, a matinee that drew a large crowd. Otherwise, she spends the season with her father, doting on Willie.

Adonis of the Senate

1867 sees the Senatorial debut of 38-year-old Roscoe Conkling, an enthusiastic politician who is admired by the ladies and disliked by many of his colleagues. Tall, vain, handsome and exceedingly well groomed, the married Senator from New York would shortly occupy a central part in Kate’s life.

Roscoe Conkling

While Congress squares off against President Johnson’s reconstruction policies, Kate sails to Europe to visit Nettie and escort her home. Both returned in the fall to find Washington embroiled. Johnson asks for Secty. of War Edwin M. Stanton’s resignation in August while Congress is in recess. Stanton refuses the order prompting Johnson to suspend him from office. Congress doesn’t agree with the suspension. Johnson ousts Stanton from office in February 1868. Four days later, Thaddeus Stevens and John Bingham move to have Johnson impeached. Conkling is part of a 7-member committee to determine the rules of the proceedings. Kate’s father will preside over the trial as Chief Justice. Salmon secretly believes that the impeachment has more to do with partisan power than any evidence of high crimes.

President Andrew Johnson

William publicly says nothing during the bitter impeachment proceeding. Kate, on the other hand, takes great interest in the trial. She and Nettie fill their front row Senate gallery seats each day. Kate’s fashion is documented in society columns “autumnal sweetness and perfection…a picture of delicacy and grace, arrayed in silk…” On another occasion, she is attired in a royal purple gown and matching bonnet “…an exquisite walking dress of pale lilac silk has trimmings a shade darker, whilst lilac gloves conceal a hand that might belong to the queen of the fairies.” Rumor spread that she sought to influence her husband and other Republicans to vote for Johnson’s acquittal. It’s whispered that her dinner parties at Sixth and E Street mansion are a ploy to control the trial from behind the scene.

Stay tuned for: Grace, Gumption and Glory: Kate Chase Sprague, Part 2, coming soon!


[i] Robert Bruce Warden: An Account of the Private Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase, p290-291.
[ii] Ibid, p 18.
[iii] Ibid, p 17.
[iv] Ibid, p 18.
[v] Ibid, p 18.
[vi] James P. McClure, Peg A. Lamphier, and Erika M. Kreger: Spur Up Your Pegasus, Family Letters of Salmon, Kate, and Nettie Chase, 1844-1873, p83.
[vii] Peg A. Lamphier: Kate Chase and William Sprague, Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage, p11.
[viii] Peg A. Lamphier: Kate Chase and William Sprague, Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage, p2
[ix] John Oller: American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague…, p31.
[x] Peg A. Lamphier: Kate Chase and William Sprague, Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage, p22.
[xi] Ibid, p37.
[xii] Ibid, p33.
[xii] Ibid, p24.
[xiii] Ibid, p42.
[xiv] Ibid, p34.
[xv] Ibid, p49.
[xvi] Ibid, p62.
[xvii] Ibid, p65.
[xviii] Paul Leroy Hacker, A Story of Kate Chase’s Family, p37.

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