Kate Chase and William Sprague: Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage

Kate Chase and William Sprague: Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage

Kate Chase and William Sprague: Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage

Kate Chase and William Sprague: Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage


The marriage of Kate Chase to William Sprague inaugurated the most publicized union and divorce of the Civil War era. Katherine "Kate" Chase was the daughter of Salmon P. Chase, a leading antislavery politician and member of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet. Motherless from an early age, she became her father's official hostess during the Civil War and Reconstruction years as well as his unofficial campaign manager. At the opening of the Civil War, her husband, William Sprague, was a wealthy industrialist, the "boy governor" of Rhode Island, a dashing military figure, and an alcoholic. After looking at the lives of Chase and Sprague before they met, Peg A. Lamphier analyzes their courtship, their marriage, Chase's role as her father's campaign manager, Sprague's marital infidelities, Chase's affair with Roscoe Conkling, Sprague's abusiveness, and Chase and Sprague's divorce and the issues of child custody it evoked. Pushing the boundaries of power and gender, Chase showed her ability to play politics in both public and private forums and to regain her independence as a woman in an arena dominated by men. Kate Chase and William Sprague delves into the social history of a nineteenth-century marriage and provides important insight into the role of gender in the political history of the time.


Through all the drama, whether damned or not
Love gilds the scene, and women guide the plot

Richard Brensley Sheridan

In 1904, only five years after Katherine Chase Sprague’s death and nine years before William Sprague’s demise, the journalist Henry Villard included the following story about wartime Washington in his autobiography:

One of the points of attraction was the headquarters of Governor Sprague
of Rhode Island, who had recruited three regiments in his State and led
them to Washington. He had a very limited mental capacity, but had
reached political distinction at an early age—he was then but thirty
one—through the influence of a real or reputed great wealth. It was
at his headquarters that he became acquainted with Kate, the beautiful
and gifted daughter of Secretary [of the Treasury Salmon P.] Chase. The
acquaintance quickly ripened into an engagement that was the social
sensation of the day. She was far superior to him in every way, and married
him for the enjoyment and power of his money. It turned out one of the
unhappiest marriages ever known in American society, ending in moral
and material wretchedness for both parties.

Villard was neither the first nor the last writer to summarize Kate and William’s union as venal, unholy, or mismatched. Biographers and contemporary social commentators alike found in the pair a kind of blackand-white morality tale. This take on the Chase-Sprague story creates a compelling story, laden as it is with illicit sex, thwarted ambition, betrayal, and barbarous practices. No modern historian has attempted to illuminate . . .

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