San Francisco County
Dr. HOMER B. SPRAGUE
President of Peralta Hall.
(The following biographical sketch of Mr. Sprague is taken largely from The Cosmopolitan magazine, London, England.)
Homer B. Sprague is a native of Sutton, Massachusetts. He was the second of nine children. His father was a hard worker, a man greatly respected for his unusual intelligence and high moral character, successively a blacksmith, a skillful maker of axes and adzes, and a farmer. The family had more brains than money, and the boy was trained up to assist in supporting the rest. At the age of nine, he was accordingly set to work in Lovett’s cotton factory, in East Douglas, Massachusetts; afterwards at shoemaking for Simon J. Woodbury, of Sutton, and Joel Bacheller, of Northbridge, and at agricultural employment on his grandfather’s and his father’s farm, in South Sutton.
At Leicester Academy, Massachusetts, which he entered in 1847, he was noted for his industry, usually rising for study at five o’clock in the morning, summer and winter. Obliged to practice the very strictest economy, he, for a long time “boarded himself,” in a little room at the top of the academy building, where he lived mostly on bread and milk. When he entered the institution, and for a year afterwards, he did not believe it possible that his father could spare the means to give him a liberal education, nor that sufficient funds could be obtained otherwise. It seemed like a vain dream; but the principal, Rev. Josiah Clark, one of the most gifted teachers of Massachusetts, conceived an extraordinary attachment for him, and from the first insisted that he should go to Yale. He was the valedictorian of his class at the academy in 1848, closing his oration with original poetry in blank verse –“very blank,” he used to say.
He entered Yale in 1848, occupying a room in South Middle College, first floor, north entry, back corner. He had not money enough to carry him through the first term. Accordingly, upon admission, he bought a saw and ax, and began to earn something by sawing and splitting wood in the college wood-yard, after the manner of the present Senator Dawes, of Massachusetts. This labor was too severe, and he soon found easier and more remunerative employment in private teaching. While in college he was elected “First President” of Linonia, and, by a nearly unanimous vote, editor of the Yale Literary Magazine; also class valedictorian. He took many prizes, and received many honors from the college authorities and from his classmates. He was the first student that ever gained the hundred-dollar De Forest gold medal.
Upon leaving college, having received the degree of Bachelor of Arts, he continued to support himself by teaching, engaging at the same time in the study of law and literature. He lectured, and often wrote for the newspapers. At New Haven, Connecticut, he taught in Mayor Skinner’s school and General Russell’s school at Worcester, Massachusetts, and the Worcester Academy. At both places he had private pupils in Latin and Greek. Three years after graduation he became Master of Arts. The anti-slavery agitation was now approaching its climax, and many fiery speeches and newspaper articles were spoken or written by him. Some of these were printed in pamphlet form by State and national anti-slavery societies. His father had been one of the original Liberty-party men.
A vacancy suddenly occurring in the office of principal of the public high school in Worcester, Massachusetts, Mr. Sprague, who was then a member of the city school board, was induced to take the position, which he retained for more than three years.
Some of the ablest men in the nation, among them ex-Governor Daniel H. Chamberlin, editors Walter Allen and Henry Boyden, President, David Brainerd Perry, and others hardly less distinguished, were among his pupils; and they have often expressed their deep sense of obligation to him for the training and inspiration they then received. Returning to New Haven he became for a short time principal of the Webster school, and afterwards a member of the school board of that city. The New Haven teachers were warmly attached to him, and, on his entrance into the army, signified their friendship by costly presents, among them an elegant sword, still in his possession.
On the breaking out of the war he had been practicing law in Worcester and New Haven with marked success, though “not long enough,” he used to say, “to do much harm!” He immediately threw open his office as a recruiting rendezvous. He made many patriotic speeches and wrote many newspaper articles, urging a vigorous prosecution of the war, stimulating to a love of the Union, and arguing vehemently in favor of the immediate emancipation of the slaves as a war measure. He persuaded many to enter the service. For the Seventh Connecticut Infantry he recruited at his own expense a company of fifty men, to whom he administered the oath of enlistment, and who unanimously elected him Captain; but the entreaties of family and friends, for he was married and had three children, prevented his acceptance at this time. Later on, when the strife grew darker and more bloody, and when it became evident that the fighting was to be more desperate and prolonged, he, with Lieuteuant J. F. Clark, recruited another company of one hundred men for the Thirteenth Connecticut Infantry. This was in the fall of 1861, and the winter of 1861-’62. Unanimously elected Captain, he could no longer resist the call of his country. He now entered into barracks with his soldiers in New Haven in December, 1861, and drilled them daily in the school of the solider and of the company.
In March, 1862, he left with his regiment for the Department of the Gulf. Here his anti-slavery views brought him into collision with General B. F. Butler, at New Orleans, in the latter part of May, 1862, when at some personal peril he dared to disobey an order commanding him to deliver up a fugutive slave to the owner. Of this incident, the editor of the Waterbury (Connecticut) American, the late Major John C. Kinney, in his issue of August 9, 1868, who was present at the time and cognizant of the facts, says: “Colonel Sprague was also appreciated in the regiment as the only man in the department who ever caused General Butler to retract an order, or in other words, ‘to take the back track.’ The Colonel’s action prevented a slave, who had sought his protection, from being returned by order of Butler.”
Amusing accounts of his disputes with slaveholders were published in the New York Tribune and other papers.
For four years he was in the service, receiving successively commissions as Captain, Major, Lieutenant-Colonel and Colonel, and sharing all the hardships, sufferings and dangers of active warfare. In the battle of Irish Bend, Louisiana, April 14, 1863, while charging at the head of his company on a rebel battery, with sword brandished, and shouting, “Come one, boys!” he felt a stinging, benumbing shock in his right hand and arm, and blood spurted in his face. A rebel rifle ball, that but for his uplifted sword would have pierced his forehead, had splintered on his sword-hilt in front of his eyes, portions of the lead tearing open his wrist, and making what the surgeons called “a very pretty wound,” while other pieces of the bullet entered his face and right arm, where some of them still remain imbedded. Getting a handkerchief bound tightly upon the disabled wrist, he continued in the fight till victory was won.
Twenty-three years afterwards, in 1886, he was appointed, with Majors Kinney and Frank Wells, by the legislature of Connecticut, a committee to restore to its original owners the beautiful silk flag so captured at Irish Bend, bearing the inscription, “The Ladies of Franklin to the St. Mary’s Cannoniers.”
On the 7th of March, 1863, a State election approaching in Connecticut, Captain Sprague, while facing the enemy in the swamps of Louisiana, feeling that it was of vital importance that the troops at the front should be sustained by the voters at home, wrote an intensely earnest address to the people of Connecticut, closing with the words, “Let us make a clean sweep of the secessionists; you at the ballot-box, we on the battle-field.” This address was extensively signed by Connecticut officers and men of both political parties, at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and was published in the Connecticut papers. It contributed largely to the victory of the Unionists at the polls in that darkest period of the war.
On the terrible 14th of June, 1863, when the Thirteenth Connecticut, having fought its way step by step up to the very breastworks of Port Hudson, lay shattered and mangled under the muzzles of the enemy’s guns with several other regiments behind and beside them, the commanding general, Banks, sent one of his aids, calling for a storming column of 200 men to leap into the enemy’s works at that point. Captain Sprague immediately volunteered, and the number was nearly made up, when the proposed dash of the 200 into the rebel works was countermanded.
In the Waterbury American, August 1868, is the following statement: “Colonel Sprague was noted in his regiment not less for his thorough knowledge of tactics than for his unflinching bravery. When General Banks, after his second defeat at Port Hudson, called for a storming column, the Colonel was the first man who volunteered. * * * * We speak of what we know.” The writer of this statement (the italics are his) in the Waterbury American, Major Kinney, here refers to the celebrated storming column of 1,000 men called for by Banks’ famous general order No. 49, Headquarters, Department of the Gulf, June 15, 1863. The day before had witnessed the disastrous and bloody repulse of the Union forces in their assaults on the rebel works. On receipt of Banks’ order at 9 A.M., June 16, Captain Sprague immediately dispatched a special messenger, notifying the commander that he and Lieutenant Kinney, who was occupying the tent with him, volunteered in this forlorn hope, and requesting that their names be enrolled. This was before they had learned of any others being willing to volunteer. Captain Sprague then at once called his own company together, read to them the order of General Banks, told them that he had already joined the storming party, and appealed to their patriotism to follow his example. There were present at this time investing Port Hudson, forty-one regiments of infantry and cavalry, besides many batteries of artillery, and the large and well-appointed fleet in the Mississippi river. To all of these, General Banks eloquently appealed, urging them to come forward and fill up the forlorn hope. The result was that sixty-five commissioned officers and nine hundred and eighteen soldiers and marines joined this storming column. Of this number, Captain Sprague’s regiment alone furnished fifteen officers and two hundred and twenty-five enlisted men! In his diary of that day, June 16, among other similar memoranda about this forlorn hope, is the following. “I have in my pocket about $220 in treasury notes, of which, in case of my death (in this assault), I wish $200 sent to my wife, New Haven, Connecticut, by Adams Express. The remainder will pay my servant. I wish my remains to be sent to New Haven for interment. Lieutenant Tibbets or Dr. Clary will see to the execution of the foregoing.” He and others made their wills, and quietly transferred watches, money, etc., to those who had not volunteered.
The time fixed for the assault was the morning of July 4; but, the day before, rumors had arrived of the capitulation of Vicksburg, and Banks wisely waited for confirmation of the tidings, which speedily came, rendering the attack unnecessary.
Of the Thirteenth Regiment, General Grover, commanding the Division, afterwards wrote: “It is one of the best in the army, and is entitled to great consideration for its distinguished services.”
In recognition of this offer of his life for his country, and of other services, Captain Sprague was made Colonel by Brevet, “for gallant and meritorious conduct.”
In the heat, of Sheridan’s battle of Winchester, September 19, 1864, when our lines recoiled before the overwhelming advance of Early’s army (see Harper’s Monthly for November, 1864, for the best account* of this terrible battle), Colonel Sprague, being in command of the Thirteenth Connecticut, held his position to the last in obedience to direct orders, holding the enemy back in front by fierce fighting, until they closed upon him on both flanks and rear, and he found himself in what appeared to be the very center of the rebel army.
After some months of imprisonment at Danville, Salisbury and Richmond, he was paroled to distribute supplies of clothing sent on by the United States Government through the Confederate lines. He now saw what no United States officer had been permitted to see before him, the inside of some of the worst prison pens of the South.
He engaged in repeated attempts to escape, one of which was attended by fatal results. The others were baffled. At last, when he was greatly reduced by sickness and hunger, and was expecting to die in prison, the rebel commandant, who was really a kind gentleman, and formerly a Yale student, seeing Sprague’s decline, offered to parole him, and give him good food, good clothing, and good quarters “if he would assist a little in clerical work at the commandant’s headquarters.” Colonel Sprague replied, “My business is to do your Confederacy as much harm as I can. That is necessary. It is not necessary that I should live.” Freemasonry saved his life.
After nearly six months’ imprisonment he was exchanged, and immediately rejoined his command; but it was more than two years before he regained his full bodily strength. Acting for the most part as president of courts martial and military commissions, he was not mustered out until the last of April, 1866.
In September, 1866, he became Principal of the State Normal School at New Britain, Connecticut. In the spring of 1868 he found himself, without having sought the position, a representative of New Britain in the State Legislature. He was appointed “House Chairman” of the Committee on Education. He gave his energies to three measures, in all of which, after a hard struggle and much maneuvering, he was entirely successful: (1) the rehabilitation of the Normal School, establishing it upon the firm basis on which it has stood ever since: (2) trebling the amount previously appropriated for teachers’ institutes in Connecticut; (3) abolishing the rate-bills (i.e. tuition bills), and so making the schools of Connecticut more nearly free than they had been before.
In the summer of 1868 he accepted the professorship of rhetoric and English literature in Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Here his labor was very severe, all the instruction of four hundred students in rhetoric, English literature, elocution and essay-writing, devolving upon him. While at Ithaca he strongly urged in newspaper articles the establishment of chairs of didactics or pedagogics in colleges. This is believed to have been the first public advocacy of that feature now recognized as of educational importance in some of the great American Universities.
His position at Cornell he resigned, to accept the principalship of the Adelphi Academy, Brooklyn, New York. The following from Hon. F. M. Finch, Judge of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York, explains itself:
My Dear Professor:-
The accompanying resolution on your resignation as professor in Cornell University, was passed at a meeting of our executive committee. Strongly as it is phrased, it scarcely does justice to our great appreciation of the ability with which you filled your professorship, and our unwillingness to see you go elsewhere. If any poor words of mine can strengthen your assurance of our regard for you, both as a professor and a man, you are at liberty to use this note for that purpose.
Resolved, That in accepting the resignation of Prof. Homer B. Sprague, the trustees desire to express their confidence in his ability and capacity as an instructor, and their great regard for him as a man; and also to express their regret that circumstances render it necessary to dissolve relations which have been so invariably pleasant, and which the trustees would gladly have seen prolonged.
A true copy from the minutes. Attest:
F. M. Finch.
Secretary Board of Trustees, Cornell University.
In Brooklyn he found the academy in at state of great depression; but by extraordinary efforts, judicious organization and skillful management, he contributed to build up the Adelphi to an unprecedented height of prosperity. In 1872 he was, unexpectedly to himself, honored with the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by the University of New York.
In 1876 he accepted the position of Head Master of the Girls’ High School in Boston, Massachusetts. This is the largest institution in New England for the high-school education of young women. He held the head-mastership for nine consecutive years, introducing some features of permanent value, and making himself felt in important educational movements.
In 1877 he originated, and with great labor established, on a plan of his own, the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute, at Cottage City, Massachusetts. This claims to be the oldest, the largest and the best of the non-Chautauqua summer schools. Nearly forty summer schools, on nearly or exactly the same model, in successful operation attest at once the value of such institutions, and the wisdom of his plan. Into this institute he drew some of the foremost educators of the nation. He held its presidency until he resigned it just before his departure for Europe in 1882.
At Cottage City, which was his summer home for thirteen years, he not only established the celebrated summer institute, with its thirty or forty teachers and hundreds of students, but he also, originated the public library, donating the first books for a nucleus, and, by cards and handbills at his own expense, calling the citizens together and pressing the matter upon their attention. By energetic and persistent effort he secured the establishment of the money-order department in the postoffice there. At his own expense, also, and after a good deal of personal exertion, he induced that community to form a Rural Improvement Society. This association has contributed much to render that beautiful summer resort still more lovely.
All this while, during his nine years in Boston, his pen never rested, but was busy writing articles mostly appearing as editorial, but often over his own signature attacking abuses and insisting on educational reforms. His pamphlet on free text-books in the public schools was influential in securing that great measure of educational progress in the State of Massachusetts.
After Boston, he spent a year and a half in California. Returning to the East, he was made president of the University of North Dakota. In the four years of his presidency, among other marks of unmistakable progress, the numbers grew from sixty-five to nearly two hundred; the standard of preparation for entrance was raised one inserted year; a complete normal department was organized; a course in letters was added, three literary societies, an athletic association, and a Young Men’s Christian Association were founded; military and gymnastic drill was introduced; regular training was begun in elocution and oratory; vocal and instrumental music and drawing were brought in, a professorship of physics was established, and a professorship of biology, each with its appropriate laboratory; a handsome magazine was successfully published; and the first two senior classes were graduated with quite brilliant success.
Among the publications of Mr. Sprague are carefully annotated editions of some of the masterpieces in English literature, including select works of Chaucer, Spenser, Bacon and Bunyan, Milton’s Lycidas, Comus, Hymn on the Nativity, and first two books of Paradise Lost; Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth and Merchant of Venice; selections from Irving’s Sketch Book; History of the Thirteenth Connecticut; and many lectures, essays and addresses, mostly educational or patriotic. He was president of the oldest of the great educational association of the country, the American Institute of Instruction, in 1883-’84, declining a re-election.
In addition to his university work, he addressed many teachers’ institutes in North Dakota. He was president of the North Dakota Teachers’ Association for the year 1888, but refused re-election. He is the author of the principal sections of the article on education in the constitution of North Dakota. With much expense of comfort, labor, time and money, he secured the incorporation of those provisions in the fundamental law of the new State. The phraseology proposed by Mr. Sprague for these sections was unfortunately changed (see the magazine Common School, October 1889, pages 5, 6, 7, showing the propositions as Mr. Sprague formulated them), but the substance is nearly identical with his. Especially is this true of the most important, viz., the first section. In this section, for the first time in any national or State constitution, the vital importance of thorough education, not of a few, not of a majority, not of the great mass even, but of EVERY VOTER, is distinctly enunciated. A standard is thus uplifted which entitles that new State to a place in the very van of the armies of education.
In the creation of this ideal in her constitution, North Dakota leads all her sister States. Said Mr. Sprague, “I desire for myself no other epitaph than this: ‘He originated the leading sections of the article on Education in the Constitution of North Dakota.’ ”
Transcribed by David Rugeroni.
Source: "The Bay of San Francisco," Vol. 2, Page 228-244, Lewis Publishing Co, 1892.
© 2005 David Rugeroni.