American Queen

The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague -- Civil War "Belle of the North" and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal


By John Oller

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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, 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 In this beautifully written and meticulously researched biography, drawing on much unpublished material, John Oller captures the tumultuous and passionate life of a woman who was a century ahead of her time.


A Note on the Text

Nineteenth-century letters and diaries can pose a challenge to twenty-first-century readers, and for that reason I have made certain changes to the original text for convenience and clarity—modernizing spellings (e.g., changing "can not" to "cannot," or "to-night" to "tonight"), substituting "and" for "&," supplying missing question marks where they were clearly implied in the original, and making other miscellaneous punctuation changes. In no case was a text changed where I thought it might alter the author's original meaning. Original capitalizations were generally left intact, even for words that ordinarily would be lower-cased today, on the theory that they reflected an intended emphasis by the writer. Underlinings in the original appear as italics here. All emphases in quotations are from the original.

Frontispiece: Kate Chase, photographed by Matthew Brady in 1860 (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Copyright © 2014 by John Oller

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address Da Capo Press, 44 Farnsworth Street, Third Floor, Boston, MA 02210.

Book design by Cynthia Young

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Oller, John.

American queen : the rise and fall of Kate Chase Sprague,

Civil War "Belle of the North" and gilded age woman of scandal / John Oller.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-306-82281-0 (e-book)

1. Sprague, Kate Chase, 1840-1899. 2. Chase, Salmon P. (Salmon Portland), 1808–1873.

3. Sprague, William, 1830-1915. 4. Socialites—United States—Biography.

5. United States—Politics and government—19th century. I. Title.

E415.9.S76O55 2014




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10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To my mother and in memory of my father


A Note on the Text

Prologue: A Woman in the Arena


1. "Qualified to Ornament Any Society"

2. "I Shall Strive to Be First Wherever I May Be"

3. "How Short Then Is This Life!"

4. The Belle of Columbus

5. The Belle of Washington

6. The Boy Governor

7: Mrs. Lincoln's Rival

8. Wedding of the Decade


9. "Imagine My Disappointment"

10. "Our Accomplished Countrywoman"

11. "More Unfitness Day by Day"

12. "I Am Told That She Actually Controls the Entire Affair"

13. "You Have Been Most Cruelly Deceived"

14. "I Almost Hate This Man"

15. "She's Capable of Hitting Him"

16. Some Dared Call It Treason

17. End of an Era

18. End of an Empire

19. "Intended by Their Creator for Each Other"

20. "Mrs. Conkling Is Not Here This Winter"

21. "The Now Notorious Outbreak"

22. "The Bird Has Flown"


23. "A Dinner with the Queen"

24. "As Much Alone as Cleopatra"

25. Gilded Age Woman

26. Stalwart Woman

27. An Unmarried Woman

28. An Independent Woman

29. "What We Have Is Good"

30. "None Outshone Her"





Selected Bibliography


Prologue: A Woman in the Arena

The old woman held the reins of the rickety, one-horse carriage with her soiled, white kid gloves as she wound her way down the hill in the direction of the nation's capital. She wore a purple plumed hat over her blonde wig, her face heavily painted with rouge, her dress badly out of fashion. As the buggy rolled along the driveway, overgrown with weeds and bordered by a broken-down fence, the aging mare trudged past chickens running freely about the property. Atop the hill stood a decaying brick country home, its outline obscured by the thicket of scrub and fallen tree branches.

In the distance the woman could see the glistening white dome of the Capitol, where she had spent so many hours listening to Senate speeches, watching impeachment proceedings, witnessing presidents being sworn in, and gazing upon those who had lain in state. She had known so many of them: every president from Lincoln to Grover Cleveland and countless other eminent nineteenth-century men: the great abolitionist senator Charles Sumner, the war generals Grant and Sherman, cabinet members Seward and Stanton, and powerful journalists such as Horace Greeley, literary giants such as Longfellow and Twain, and assorted statesmen, diplomats, and financiers. She had entertained men such as these at her famous Washington salons, where she held court as a political hostess and established her reputation as the most brilliant woman of her day. The daughter of Lincoln's treasury secretary, the Belle of the North during the Civil War, she became America's version of the salonnières—the madames and duchesses who flourished in Europe as arbiters of high social discourse. Among contemporaries, she was compared to the celebrated French Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III and influencer of foreign affairs. "No Queen has ever reigned under the Stars and Stripes," one newspaper eulogized after her death, "but this remarkable woman came closer to being a Queen than any American woman has."

Much of it had to do with her appearance: tall, slender, a long, swanlike neck and fetching, hazel eyes hidden beneath thick, drooping lashes. Men thought her beautiful, but it was not so much that she was a classic beauty—her nose, for one, was "slightly inclined to pug," as James Garfield once commented, a feature others thought added a touch of piquancy to her face. Like the Mona Lisa, to whom she was also compared, she appeared fascinating and irresistible, with "something of the strangeness which has been said to belong invariably to beauty of the highest order."

There was also a hint of condescension in her manner—in the pose of a head that, with its proud tilt, seemed slightly imperious, and in the aloof, half smile she habitually wore. Her voice was mellow and musical; she enunciated beautifully, spoke faultless French, and was fluent in German. An acknowledged queen of fashion, she adorned herself in the most superb gowns, imported by the dozens from Parisian couturiers, always matching the color of her millinery and jewelry. Yet even simply dressed, she was the envy of other women, as when she upstaged her rival, Mary Todd Lincoln, by appearing at a White House reception in a modest costume, with hardly more than a flower in her hair, yet remaining the center of attention. "Poor, weak Mrs. Lincoln was simply swept into the corner when this imperious young beauty appeared, leaning upon the arm of the great secretary," it would be written later.

Her looks and adornments created a total package that was greater than the sum of its parts. Enhancing all of it was a magnetic personality that drew people to her. Admirers commented on her keen intellect, the breadth of her sparkling conversation, and her diplomatic skills. When she entered the room a hush would fall over the crowd, but, like a monarch in a receiving line, any trace of haughtiness dissolved into grace and charm once she met a person one-on-one. As a male political friend marveled, "when she is talking to you, you feel that you are the very person she wanted to meet. That she has forgotten your existence the next moment is an afterthought."

Beneath the charming exterior, though, was a calculating politician. As was once said of her, "She could talk about anything at all and make it seem sweet music—yet she could scheme like a cigar-chewing convention rigger." Of course, no nineteenth-century American woman could ever hope to possess the power of a true monarch—a Queen Victoria or, from earlier history, an Elizabeth I or a Catherine the Great. And before the twentieth century, American women could not even vote, much less hold political office. Yet at the dawn of that new century, due to her scientific knowledge of the subject, she enjoyed a political power that no American woman to that time had ever possessed. It grew out of her upbringing and training: as a young girl and daughter of a politician, she had met the most famous men of her time—Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, the noted orator, who sent her his speeches to read when she was attending an exclusive boarding school in New York. At age fifteen, when her widowed father was elected governor of Ohio, she became the mistress of his household and his official hostess, a position she continued to hold in Washington during the war. Having "mastered the art of seducing men's minds," she used her personal allure to advance her father's political ambitions, hoping one day to make him president of the United States. Certainly she thought, as did he, that he would make a better president than Lincoln and that she was a more suitable First Lady than the dowdy Mrs. Lincoln.

Beauty, charisma, power—all these she possessed. But to truly emulate a queen one needs, above all else, wealth. This she had lacked until she married, at age twenty-three, one of the richest men in the country in the social event of the Civil War. Many would claim she married only for money, which she needed to fuel her father's presidential aspirations. But her diary, undiscovered for nearly a century, would tell a different story: she had been genuinely in love at the time of her wedding. The money did not hurt, of course, and with her husband's fortune she would live a life of virtual royalty for more than a decade. Alas, he would not prove to be a king; the marriage would crumble, the money would disappear. After a sex scandal with another powerful figure, she became a social outcast, and her political influence waned. Finally the beauty faded as well. And so she found herself on this day in 1897, old beyond her years at fifty-seven, alone, obscure, and living in poverty—driving her shabby carriage not to the Capitol that was once her haunting grounds but to the outskirts of Washington to peddle milk and eggs. With these and the vegetables she grew at home, she was trying her best to eke out a living.

Yet if she was bitter, she showed no signs of it. In her diary many years earlier she acknowledged a need to "force back the old bitterness of spirit" she had not yet succeeded in conquering. As she admitted, "proud, passionate, intolerant, I had never learned to submit." In later years, as her need for public recognition subsided, her spirit softened. In her solitude and altered circumstances she found an inner peace that had eluded her most of her turbulent life. But nothing could ever change her proud bearing nor could the whirligig of time rob her of the memories of when she was at the center of the political arena, busy working her enchanting magic.


NEW YORK, JULY 5, 1868—The room was insufferably hot when Kate Chase sat down to write a letter to her father from her guest lodgings near Union Square in New York City. The mercury had reached ninety-­nine degrees that Sunday afternoon, and, as she told him, "Day before yesterday, yesterday and today have been as hot as weather can well be, too hot by far, for the warm work on hand here." Despite her discomfort, "work" was more than enough to keep her going. The Democratic National Convention had opened the day before to choose a candidate for president, and Kate Chase was there to make sure that candidate would be her father, then chief justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase. She was twenty-seven years old.

"There is a noble work being done here by your friends," she continued, "and whether success or failure crowns their efforts, they will be always proud to have had a hand in it." She would not enter into details, she said, but reassured her father that "everything, as far as developed looks well—only New York—friends inside that close corporation say their action is cautious, those outside call it timid." In the political-speak that was her wont, she was referring to the New York delegation, which held the key to the nomination. Upon her arrival in the city a few days before, as one newspaper reported, she had "immediately sent for" the delegation's shrewd head, Samuel J. Tilden, as well as Wall Street banker and Democratic Party National Chair August Belmont, and in long interviews she sought to enlist their support for her father's cause.

The newspaper writer's choice of words, "sent for," was intentional, for powerful men came to see Kate Chase, not the other way around. Belmont seemed on board for Chase, but Tilden, whom the New-York Tribune called "the airiest, coolest, wiliest-looking delegate in the Convention," was noncommittal. Kate would need to work on him.

If anyone could corral the necessary support, it was Kate Chase. She had gone to New York, as her father's unofficial campaign manager, to achieve a goal that had eluded him in his three previous presidential bids—all as a Republican. Those rudderless attempts lacked someone who could crack the whip when needed. Kate saw that as her task this time. As she later recalled of that 1868 convention, "I knew that the men who were managing my father's interests were not so well organized as they should be, and I wanted to be present to prevent any trouble and take advantage of any situation that might come up."

To be close to the action, she was staying at a relative's townhouse on lower Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks west of the convention site at the brand-new Tammany Hall on Fourteenth Street. Kate also took out a suite of rooms a little farther uptown at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, the most modern and luxurious hotel in the city. It featured private bathrooms in every bedroom and a "vertical steam engine," as the passenger elevator was called, connecting its six stories. The hotel served as headquarters for her father's backers while they courted convention delegates who came from across the country to choose a man to go up against the Republican nominee, General Ulysses S. Grant.

Kate was visibly in charge of the Chase-for-President operations, using all her unrivaled powers to secure her father's nomination. Her Fifth Avenue Hotel suite was crowded day and night with campaign workers and convention delegates. "Some delegates were coaxed, to others promises were given, and upon all were brought to bear the power of her conversation and the charm of her irresistible beauty," one memoirist recounted. "What a Magnificent woman Kate has become," one of Chase's friends wrote to him, insisting that "with her shrewdness and force, and with ninety days' time, I could have you nominated by acclamation and elected by an overwhelming majority." Billy Hudson, then a cub reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle covering his first convention, recalled years later being mesmerized by the sight of Kate in action. "There, in supreme control, was Chase's daughter, in the flush of beautiful womanhood, tall and elegant, with exquisite tact, with brains of almost masculine fiber, trained in the political arts by her father, who had long been a national figure."

Like many, Hudson had difficulty reconciling the career of Salmon Chase—antislavery champion, a leading founder of the Republican Party, and Lincoln's treasury secretary—with the fact that he was before the Democratic convention, "cap in hand, deferentially supplicating a nomination." The Democrats at that time were largely opposed to equal rights for black Americans. Many of those attending the convention—like former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan—stood for everything Chase had fought against his entire life. In the opening keynote address Belmont gave a rabble-rousing speech in which he called African Americans "a debased and ignorant race, just emerged from servitude." So this was the party, these were the people, Billy Hudson mused, that Salmon Chase now sought to represent? But all these perplexities disappeared for the young reporter the moment Kate entered the Chase headquarters. Hudson would later recall that he "fell under her sway, a willing captive." If she wanted her father to have the nomination, that was good enough for him.

To a more established society journalist Kate seemed, on the surface, "the most graceful, distinguished, and queenly woman" she had ever seen. And yet Kate was a woman in anguish over her private life. In her diary a few weeks before, she had despaired of "the absence from my life of a pervading, tender, devoted love." She had suffered outrages and insults from her habitually drunken, womanizing husband and vowed that "if I cannot be a respected and honored wife and treated as such I will not be this man's mistress."

"This man" was William Sprague, the former governor of Rhode Island, now a Republican US senator from the same state. One of the wealthiest men in America, he was heir to a multimillion-dollar textile manufacturing empire in New England. Their wedding in the nation's capital in November 1863—attended by President Lincoln a week before his Gettysburg address—was a union between the undisputed Belle of Washington and the dashing "boy governor" who had distinguished himself at the Battle of First Bull Run. Now, less than five years later, the marriage was in tatters. But Kate could not think about any of that now—there was too much important work to do in New York.

While Kate toiled in the heat of New York that Fourth of July week, her husband, conspicuous by his absence, was at their oceanside estate in Narragansett, tending to business and staying with their three-year-old son, Willie. Sprague's brother Amasa was at the convention, though, and was working night and day on Chase's behalf. "The young men are the life of this movement," Kate wrote her father on her arrival in New York. "Things look a good deal clearer, and Amasa insists that he 'will know tonight which way the cat will jump'—The point now is to select the man to be spokesman in the convention." From memory she rattled off the names of various southern politicians she thought would be useful: "Mr. Hunter, Col. Cabell, Bradley Johnson, and Gilmer," although Edgerton, a former midwestern congressman, was "bitter as gall, and swears he would not vote for you under any circumstances." Such unalloyed opponents were rare, she assured her father. "The popular voice here is all one way, most singularly enthusiastic," she wrote. But the Chase backers needed to control their enthusiasm, she cautioned. Her game plan was to hold Chase's name back from the convention at first and await a deadlock, as she was afraid her father's more passionate followers would stage a premature floor demonstration and offend the supporters of Ohio's George Pendleton, the frontrunner. "The Pendleton men," she had ascertained, were "very fractious."


  • “A fascinating portrait of a strong, accomplished, and resilient woman, who was ahead of her time—and happens to be my great-great grandmother!”—Kris Carr, New York Times bestselling author and motivational speaker

    “The story of Kate Chase literally jumps off the page in John Oller's brilliant evocation of her tumultuous life. She is the Northern Scarlett O'Hara, whose political and social ambitions—and machinations worthy of Machiavelli—ultimately consume her. Oller's skilled and even-handed treatment of his subject allows the reader to empathize with this fascinating and complex woman despite her flaws.”—Heath Hardage Lee, author of Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause

    “John Oller's book adds many new dimensions to one of the most famous women in the United States in the nineteenth century.”—Richard Vangermeersch, Professor Emeritus, University of Rhode Island

    Kirkus, 10/15/14
    “A well-researched, thoughtful biography of a woman who ‘became entirely her own person, a rare feat for women of her day.'”
  • Library Journal starred review, 10/15/14
    “Well written, fast paced, and with a compelling attention to detail, this work should be a fascinating read for Civil War buffs, fans of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (in which Salmon Chase is a main character), and Jennifer Chiaverini's Mrs. Lincoln's Rival.”

    Publishers Weekly, 10/1/14
    “Oller details Sprague's fascinating life, introducing readers to an inspiring woman in spite of her faults: haughtiness; personal, rather than ideological, politics; financial profligacy…Oller offers an accessible, attention-grabbing work”

    Chicago Tribune, 11/6/14
    “Nuanced and finely balanced.”, 11/1/14
    “John Oller has written an absorbing book…[he] brings into focus a master of political intrigue and a beautiful, ambitious, resourceful woman who was determined to live life on her own terms. Oller's book evokes an era and the American Queen who, for a time, ruled it.”

    Providence Journal, 12/14/14
    “[An] immensely readable and grippingly sumptuous biography…Fascinating.”

    Hudson Valley News, 11/26/14
    “[A] lively book…It's a joy to say that a biography, even of someone you hadn't heard of before, can be good fun all the way through.”
  • Minneapolis Star Tribune, 12/28/14
    “[Kate Chase Sprague] is a fit subject for a biography because of her commanding presence in an era when women were not expected to have any say in public affairs…Oller commands his sources in a riveting narrative that is all the more persuasive because he does not make large claims for his subject. It is enough, he realizes, for a biography to portray and assess a remarkable human being—one who struggled with and overcame many of the confining conventions of her age—in her own terms.”

    Adventures with Words, 10/28/14
    “A surprising biography…American Queen should be required reading for anyone taking a class in American history, anyone interested in this period of American history, and any woman who wants to know what ignoring societal limitations looks like.”

    Fangirl Nation, 10/27/14
    “Kate Chase is probably the most tragic story you've never heard from American History…Oller's book is sympathetic and kind to a woman that men wanted and women wanted to be for most of her days in Washington DC…If you've never heard of Kate Chase or her contributions to American politics, now is the time to hear her story.”
  • Portland Book Review, 1/16/15
    “Oller, who has worked closely with Sprague's granddaughter, attempts to dispel the typical opinions that her life was tragic by instead focusing on her strength of spirit and accomplishments for a woman of that era.”

    Civil War Book Review, Winter 2015
    “Kate Chase was an interesting woman in an age when women were not supposed to be interesting…Oller has created an immensely readable book.”

    San Francisco Book Review, 2/25
    “A ripped-from-the-headlines romp through the 1800s…A fascinating look at Kate Chase Sprague…A careful and vivid biography worthy of a read.”

    Civil War Monitor, 4/21/15
    “Full of engaging detail and captivating characters…Yet this vivid portrait of a vivacious and complex woman who defied the dictates of her day is no mere biography. Oller weaves in fascinating details of rivalries and alliances launched in Civil War Washington which influenced political agendas during Reconstruction and what followed, the so-called Gilded Age…He also powerfully invokes the way in which the press reflected and stimulated political intrigue and downfall.”

    2015 Ohioana Book Award, finalist
  • Advance praise for American Queen

    “Beautiful, brilliant, and wildly ambitious, Kate Chase was a master of political intrigue and behind-the-scenes power in an era when women were told to be seen and not heard. A terrific work of historical research and reconstruction, American Queen follows her fascinating but forgotten life to tell the story of the Civil War and its scandalous aftermath—its assassinations, impeachments, and sexual hijinks—from an entirely fresh perspective.”—Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

    “No woman of her time walked as close to the power of the land as Kate Chase Sprague. None of the men in her life exceeded her in ambition and drive, or in intriguing for success. John Oller's American Queen eloquently traces her rise and fall, bringing out new material that gives context to an already rich life. Proud at her heights, unbroken by tragedy, this almost American Queen's story is as fascinating as it is improbable. In many respects this thoroughly nineteenth century woman sounds very modern, indeed.”—William C. Davis, prize-winning author

On Sale
Oct 28, 2014
Page Count
416 pages
Da Capo Press

John Oller

About the Author

John Oller, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of the critically acclaimed biographies of actress Jean Arthur and Kate Chase Sprague, Mary Todd Lincoln’s great rival. He lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author