Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló is currently the youngest governor, having assumed office earlier this year when he was 37. Rhode Island’s governor During the Civil War was even younger when he took the helm of the state at age 29.
William Sprague IV was elected Governor of Rhode Island in 1860 as the Rhode Island Union Party, and was reelected in 1861 and 1862. Sprague came from a political family; his uncle William Sprague III was a Congressman, Senator, and Governor of Rhode Island. Sprague’s father, Amasa Sprague, was murdered in 1843 in an episode that continues to resonate in state politics. Irishman John Gordon was convicted and hanged for the murder of Amasa, but recently, “law professors and historians now say the evidence against him was circumstantial and prejudice against Irish Catholics compromised his trial.”
As such, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee posthumously pardoned Gordon in 2011, calling the execution a “dark spot” on state history. Shortly after Gordon’s execution, Rhode Island banned the death penalty for about 20 years before subsequently reintroducing it.
William Sprague IV entered politics after having taken over his family textile business, which grew to be the largest calico printing textile mill in the world. After his election, he was referred to as the “boy governor,” although there is suspicion that he bestowed that nickname upon himself. As America barrelled to civil war, Sprague promised President Abraham Lincoln that Rhode Island would back the Union to the hilt, and Sprague ultimately put his money where his mouth was. When Rhode Island sent several battalions down south that ultimately fought in the First Battle of Bull Run, Sprague set out to join them, because he believed the war would only last a few days. During the course of the battle, Sprague’s horse was shot out from under him, and he served under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, the namesake of sideburns and the man who subsequently succeeded Sprague in the US Senate. Sprague was offered the position of Brigadier General of Volunteers after the battle but returned to Rhode Island to focus on running the state; as governor, he ultimately backed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Sprague left the Governor’s Mansion for the US Senate, where he served for two terms and was ultimately succeeded by his old commanding general, Ambrose Burnside.
By the time of Sprague’s death in 1915, he was the last living senator who served during the Civil War.
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