By Jean Rhodes
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015, All Rights Reserved
Katherine Jane Chase, the daughter of Ohio politician, Salmon P. Chase was the envy of the Washington social set during the war years and beyond.
By the time Kate was born on August 13, 1840, her father had already lost one wife and child. He was to lose two more children and Kate’s mother before the end of 1845. Chase’s third wife also died but not before giving Kate a sister, Nettie. He would never marry again.
Being widowed and heavily involved in Ohio politics, Salmon Chase would groom Kate to become his hostess and social secretary, sending her to Miss Haines School in New York City to prepare her for society. While there, she was exposed to the finer things in life to which she became accustomed. Her father’s expectations for her led him to become, it would seem, overcritical, filling his letters with advice and correcting her grammar whenever possible. Salmon Chase strove to be first and wanted the same for his daughter. One senses little warmth between father and daughter, although she idolized him. Their relationship was a symbiotic one: as time went on, Kate would help her father politically and he would never marry, with the expectation that Salmon Chase would become President and Kate would be his First Lady.
Kate returned to Columbus in 1855 as her father was running for Governor of Ohio. With his election, she became his First Lady and secretary. At age 16 she was already turning heads and was known as the “Belle of Columbus”. Salmon Chase campaigned for, and lost, the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, after which he became Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary. While disappointed at the loss, Kate learned valuable political lessons, among them the need to be proactive and the importance of strategy.
The Chase family moved to Washington and Kate soon became the premier hostess in the Capitol just as she had in Columbus. Kate and Mary Lincoln “competed” for the position until the Lincoln’s lost their son and Mary went into mourning. All of Kate’s social events, everyone who was invited, the details down to the seating arrangements, were designed to further her father’s career. Salmon had set his sights on the Presidency and Kate coveted the office as much as he did.
Her many admirers included Carl Schurz, John Hay and James Garfield; however, the man who won her heart was William Sprague IV, boy Governor of Rhode Island and heir to a textile empire. They first met in Cleveland, Ohio at the dedication ceremony of the Oliver Hazard Perry Monument. Their wedding on November 12, 1863 was the wedding of the decade, although it was soon realized that the marriage would be a rocky one. Measured by the standards of the day, it would seem she had everything. She was attractive, intelligent and had married into a wealthy family. Unfortunately, she would experience much unhappiness. She was exacting and soon found that her husband, far from a perfect man, fell short of her ideal. She spent much of her married life in Washington helping her father politically while Sprague ran the family business in Rhode Island, travelling to Washington when Congress was in session as he had been elected to the U. S. Senate.
The one man that did measure up to her standards and shared her burning ambition, her father, would never achieve his ultimate goal. Chase was hopeful of a presidential bid in 1864, but Lincoln appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, much to Kate’s chagrin.
The birth of Kate’s son, Willie, was a national event. Three daughters were to follow. Kate and her husband lived separate lives, she dividing her time between their mansion in Narragansett, Rhode Island, Washington and Europe.
With Lincoln’s death, Andrew Johnson entered the White House, allowing Kate to maintain her position as the most sought after hostess in Washington. In 1868, Salmon Chase again pursued the presidency. Kate was his campaign manager and held a level of political power unprecedented for a woman up to that time. Grant won the nomination, and Kate never forgave those on Chase’s staff whom she felt betrayed him.
During this time, Kate’s marriage to William declined further due, in part, to her absences from home and her husband’s drinking and unfaithfulness; she would not take her father’s advice to be more submissive. Salmon Chase died in 1873 depriving Kate of the one man she admired. Following the Panic of 1873, the Sprague financial empire collapsed amidst accusations of treasonous business relations with the Confederacy during the war.
Kate entered into a relationship with Roscoe Conkling, the powerful New York senator, which lasted for many years. He was her intellectual and political equal. Conkling sought her counsel and she actively campaigned to further his considerable political influence. She became a Stalwart and friend of Chester Arthur, remaining active in Washington politics.
Financial ruin, the social scandal of her affair with Conkling and a well-publicized, acrimonious divorce from Sprague would damage her reputation and emotionally traumatize her family. Paradoxically, it was only after she had lost many things that were once dear to her, did she find a measure of peace within herself.
Her last days were spent living in her father’s crumbling house, taking care of her mentally challenged daughter and eking out a living selling vegetables from her garden. It was said that as she drove her one-horse wagon with her soiled white gloves through the streets of Washington delivering produce, she held her head high and was kind to everyone she met.
Kate Chase died on July 31, 1899. As a woman of the nineteenth century, her opportunities were limited, but she followed her own agenda behind the scenes. Had Kate lived today, she would probably have run for office, or had a professional career. No matter how one interprets her historical legacy, Kate Chase was one of the most influential women of her time.
American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North”
By John Oller (Da Capo Press, October 2014, 416 pages)
From the publisher: Had People magazine been around during the Civil War and after, Kate Chase would have made its “Most Beautiful” and “Most Intriguing” lists every year.
Kate Chase, the charismatic daughter of Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, enjoyed unprecedented political power for a woman. As her widowed father’s hostess, she set up a rival “court” against Mary Lincoln in hopes of making her father president and herself his First Lady. To facilitate that goal, she married one of the richest men in the country, the handsome “boy governor” of Rhode Island, in the social event of the Civil War. But when William Sprague turned out to be less of a prince as a husband, she found comfort in the arms of a powerful married senator. The ensuing scandal ended her virtual royalty, leaving her a social outcast who died in poverty. Yet in her final years she would find both greater authenticity and the inner peace that had always eluded her.
Set against the seductive allure of the Civil War and Gilded Age, Kate Chase Sprague’s dramatic story is one of ambition and tragedy involving some of the most famous personalities in American history. In this beautifully written and meticulously researched biography, drawing on much unpublished material, John Oller captures the tumultuous and passionate life of a woman who was a century ahead of her time.
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