The Honorable William Sprague, the Civil War Governor



Governor of Rhode Island 1860-1863
Senator from Rhode Island 1863-1875
Born in Cranston Rhode Island, September 12, 1830
Died in Paris, France, September 11, 1915
Burial place is Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island
"After dispatching the First Rhode Island Detached Militia and battery to the seat of the war Governor Sprague, on his own responsibility, began immediately to raise and organize Battery A and the Second Rhode Island Infantry before President Lincoln's second call was made. When the second call for troops come the governor quickly responded, and started immediately with the battery and regiment for Washington, and remained with them and participated in the battle of Bull Run where he rendered conspicuous and gallant service and where his horse was killed under him. Besides being Governor of the State at that time he was also Colonel of the Marine Corps of the Artillery."
Aldrich, Thomas, The History of Battery A, First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery. Providence, Snow & Farham, Printers 1904.

The youngest child of Amasa and Fanny Morgan Sprague, William Sprague was born in Cranston, Rhode Island on Sunday, September 12, 1830.
William IV attended the Irving Institute in Tarrytown, New York until the age of thirteen when his father was taken from him. Amasa Sprague had been the victim of a brutal murder that would haunt William all his life. The murder of Amasa Sprague that would change Rhode Island judical history occured on the birthday of William's mother, Fanny Morgan, December 31, 1843. It was also his parent's wedding anniversary. It became a day that Fanny dreaded the rest of her life.

The death of Amasa but Amasa's younger brother, William in charge of running the mills at Cranston and Natick. William brought his dead brother's sons into A. & W. Sprague Manufacturing Company. Young William began his employment at the company store, sweeping floors. At the age of sixteen, under the watchful of his Uncle William he was placed in the counting room. From the counting room he advanced to bookkeeper. Upon the death of his Uncle William III in 1856, William Sprague IV, at age twenty-six took his place as a partner with his brother Amasa in the company, along with their cousin, William's only son Byron Sprague.
William's ability in organization and attention to detail was shown as the Sprague Company's holding began to expand to include manufacturing companies in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine and Georgia. The three Sprague's, Amasa, William and Byron petitioned to incorporate and the charter was granted June 2, 1859. The A&W Sprague Manufacturing Company soon was the largest calico printing textile mill in the world. Like his father, Amasa Sprague Jr.s interests lay in the printing of calicos and experimenting with dye recipes and running the business of manufacturing textiles.

Like his Uncle, young William became interested in politics. He was elected to the office of Governor in 1860 and re-elected in 1861. At twenty-nine years old he was the youngest governor in the Union, sometimes he was referred to as the 'boy governor' a title he may have named himself for election purposes.

As storm clouds gathered over the nation, Sprague made trips to Washington to talk with President Lincoln and Lt. General Winfield Scott. He gave them his guarantee that his state of Rhode Island would furnish a infantry regiment and a battery of light artillery for the defense of Washington. Sprague believed that the rebellion would last no more than 48 hours, that being how long it would take the North to whip the South.
Amasa Sprague, a lover of horses, furnished the artillery with their mounts, procuring the finest horses he could find. Amasa was rewarded by his brother with the honorary commission of Colonel

Just three days after Lincoln's call for volunteers in April 1861, the well trained and well equipped "Flying Artillery" left Providence for the front, and on April 28 Colonel Ambrose Burnside and Governor Sprague himself accompanied 142 men of the Rhode Island Detached Militia, from Exchange Place to their fateful encounter with the rebels at Bull Run. Leaving their armory on Thursday afternoon, they marched to Fox Point, from where they sailed to New York, arriving there at 5 PM. While they marched to the Fox Point pier the with volunteers, waving flags, singing their regimental song...

"The gallant young men of Rhode Island
Are marching in haste to the wars:
Full girded for strife, they are hazarding life
In defense of our banner and stars."

reference: "High Road to Zion", Mathias Harpin.1976

They were the second command to reach Washington. The 13th Massachusetts guard beat them by a single day. Camp Sprague was opened in Washington. Back in Rhode Island, workers at the mill, Operatives in the Valley of the Pawtucket formed the Pawtuxet River Female Association for the relief of volunteers. Recruits were honored everywhere in Rhode Island. In camp Sprague around the campfires at night, the recruits would sing..

"Of all the hosts that New England can boast.
From down by the sea unto highland
No state is more true or willing to do
Than Dear little Yankee Rhode Island
Loyal and true. Little Rhody
Bully for you, Little Rhody
Governor Sprague was not very vague
When he said, "Shoulder arms, Little Rhody."

reference: "High Road to Zion", Mathias Harpin.1976

On behalf of the firm of A & W Sprague Manufacturing Company, the Sprague's offered the state $100,000 to equip the Rhode Island Volunteers.

Providence, April 17, 1861

Dear Sirs:

We notice that the Legislation have made an appropriation of $500,000 for the purpose of enlisting men into Service of the United States. We take pleasure in offering though your Excellency to take $100,000 of that amount in such installments and of such times as you may desire. Wishing the State of Rhode Island God speed in the patriotic endeavor to save our beloved Country in this hour of her distress from disunion and anarchy we remain.

Respectfully Yours,

A. & W. Sprague

His Excellency William Sprague

Governor of State of Rhode Island

Governor Sprague participated in the first Battle of Bull. He rode a white horse into battle, which was shot out from under him. He quickly mounted another horse and bravely rode on.  A second horse was shot out from under him and he had bullets rip through the cloth of his uniform blouse. It was the first bloody encounter with the enemy, Eleven men of the 1st Rhode Island were killed on July 21, 1861 including Lieutenant Henry A. Prescott of Company D, thirty-men were injured. The Second Regiment of Rhode Island had lost twenty-eight men, including Colonel John S. Slocum, < a href="http://historynet.com/acw/blsullivan_ballou">Major Sullivan Ballou and Captain Levi Tower. Fifty-six officers and men were wounded. The Battle of Bull Run left no doubt that this was not a two day war.
Back in Rhode Island Amasa was scouting the country for horses and the cotton mill was turning out cloth in record breaking production, money was pouring in. The boy governor was becoming the darling of Washington and the press.
Commissioned as a Brigadier General of Volunteers on August 9th 1861, he declined the appointment. On March 3rd 1863, he resigned as Governor to became United States Senator.

The holdings of the Sprague family continued to grow. They purchased land in South Carolina and planned to build factories on the edge of the cotton fields. In Texas and Kansas they owned huge tracks of land, Amasa thought the company could raise horses. In Providence the Sprague's organized the Union Horsecar Railroad Company. William became the president of the New York Steamship Company which operated eight steamers and employed 500 workers. The Spragues controlled the Perkins Street Iron Company, the Rhode Island Horseshoe Company, the American Horseshoe Nail Company, Sprague Mowing Machine Company, the Comstock Stove Foundry and the Sprague Mills. They were also partners in Hoyt, Sprague and Company which owned all the stock in the Delaine Mills in Providence.


In the wedding of the year, on November 12th, 1863 Senator Sprague married the belle and most talked about woman in Washington, Kate Chase the daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. Sprague's wedding gift to his new wife was a tiara of matched pearls and diamonds that cost more then $50,000. As the bride entered the room, the marine band played 'the Kate Chase March' that composer Thomas Mark Clark had written for the occasion.

The Sprague's maintained two households. Their home in Washington was with her father at E and Sixth Street NW. In Rhode Island Kate and William lived in Narragansett at the Canochet Farm. For a few summers Kate was content to live in the old farmhouse until she decided they should build the most extravagant mansion in the area( predating the Newport Mansions by several years). The mansion was a hodgepodge of gothic, Victorian, Italian, and Oriental Styles. Most of which Kate had purchased on her buying trips to Europe. With 68 rooms it was well equipped for the Sprague's many gathering where important political and business figures were entertained. Mrs. Sprague had made Canochet elegant with the idea that it would be serving as the summer White House where she would be hostess for her widowed father.

Chief Justice Chase spent his summers away from the heat and humidity of Washington at Canochet. He thoroughly enjoyed his time there with his grandchildren but he had witnessed disturbing quarrels between Kate and Sprague and tried unsuccessfully to be peacemaker with both sides.

After the death of Chase in 1873 and the Sprague empire crumbling, life and marriage became turbulent between the Spragues. His financial and political fortunes fell with the A&W Sprague Company in 1873. William drank more and complained about Kate's spending. and behaved violently towards his wife. The Sprague's divorced in 1882. She spent some time in Europe before returning to her memories in her father's house in Edgewood outside of Washington, DC where she lived with her retarded daughter. When her son Willie took his own life in 1890, Kate withdrew from society. She managed to survive by working Edgewood as a home farm, raising chickens. She died a lonely recluse, in poverty in July 1899 at 58.
Following his divorce William Sprague married married Dora Inez Clavert of West Virginia. He regained his interest in politics and became the first Narragansett Town Council President in 1900. He and his new wife restored Canonchet mansion and lived there in the summers. Gone where the massive furnishing and dark colors of Kate. In their place Inez preferred vivid color schemes and gay patterns. Gone also were the quiet parties, in came the gay dancers and singing concerts. Inez thought herself quite the singer and would sing to her guests who politely tolerated her screeching.

August 16th, 1904, over 26,000 survivors of the American Civil War marched in a G.A.R. parade in Boston, Massachusetts, that told over five and one half hours to reach the review stand. For many of the old veterans, the hardest battle they fought was standing and walking in the hot, over crowded streets. Almost three quarters of the marchers dropped from exhaustion and prostration. They were cared for at the field and civic hospitals. Former Governor Sprague marched with the Attleboro Post of the G.A.R.

On October 11, 1909 apparently due to a faulty chimney flue, the mansion burned to the ground. Despite the best efforts of the 69 year old Sprague to save his diaries, he was overcome by smoke and had to be revived, he recovered in time to see all his papers and all the valuable artifacts lost to the fire as well as the house he had once called 'a tribute to a woman's folly', burn to the ground.

The Spragues then moved to France. During WWI, Sprague opened his apartment in the Rue de la Pompe into a convalescent hospital for the wounded of all nationalities.

On September 11, 1915, William Sprague's life ended when he died of meningitis and old age. Following a simple funeral services in France, his body was brought back to Rhode Island draped in both an American Flag and a Rhode Island flag. He received full military honors when he was laid to rest in the family tomb at Swan Point Cemetery.

"Sprague probably would not have minded that his obituaries were short and often inaccurate, written by men who did not remember him. But, surely he regretted missing the last great review of the Grand Army of the Republic, started a few days after his death. Twenty thousand strong, the loyal Union veterans marched before President Wilson in commemoration of fifty years of peace between the North and South.

How Sprague would have liked to have been there, riding a white charger at the head of the Rhode Island troops, the yellow plume of his hat streaming out behind him, a slim young girl and her father waiting for him in the shadows.(Belden Thomas G & Belden Marva R., "So Fell the Angels" Little,Brown & Co. New York 1956 P355)




Cranston Historical Society




Visit Governor Sprague Mansion Online

GOVERNOR SPRAGUE MANSION. (1790, NR) 1351 Cranston Street. Former home of politically and financially prominent Sprague family. Birthplace of two Rhode Island governors and current headquarters of the CRANSTON HISTORICAL SOCIETY