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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published September 07 2013

Did you know that: Background of UND’s Sprague diverse

Rarely has a university selected a president with a more diverse and interesting background than the University of North Dakota in 1887. UND’s new president, Homer Sprague, grew up in relative poverty and began working in a cotton factory at the age of 9, yet he graduated as valedictorian from Yale in 1852. Twice during the Civil War, he recruited infantry companies, the second of which he personally commanded. He was often cited for bravery and rose to the rank of colonel. He had been an attorney, author, state legislator and school administrator. Noted for his inspiring oratory, Sprague was considered one of the more sought after lecturers in America.

Homer Baxter Sprague was born Oct. 19, 1829, in South Sutton, Mass., to Jonathan and Mary Ann (Whipple) Sprague. Jonathan, a farmer and blacksmith, was “a man greatly respected for his unusual intelligence and high moral character,” characteristics that were also attributed to Homer. At an early age, Homer realized his family needed his assistance financially and, at the age of 9, found work in a cotton mill, earning $1.50 for a 66-hour work week. He then became a cobbler’s apprentice, learning the craft of shoemaking.

Through continued work and frugality, Homer Sprague was able to save some money and enter the prestigious Leicester Academy, a private, state-chartered institution founded by revolutionary scholars like John Hancock and Samuel Adams. He quickly caught the attention of the academy’s president, Josiah Clark, who “insisted that he should go to Yale” in New Haven, Conn.

In 1848, Sprague enrolled at Yale and, to meet expenses, found part-time work at a lumber yard sawing and splitting logs. Because he excelled in all of his classes, other students paid him to serve as their tutor. During Sprague’s senior year, he was chosen to edit the Yale Literary Magazine and graduated as valedictorian with a bachelor of arts degree in 1852. Following graduation, he studied law at the Yale Law School, began work on his master’s degree and continued his tutorial work with students studying Latin and Greek. In 1854, Sprague was admitted to the bar and the following year completed his master’s degree in literature.

Sprague relocated to Worcester, Mass., where he practiced law for the next three years. When the principal of the city’s high school left, Sprague agreed to take that position until 1859. He then returned to New Haven and established his law office. Sprague became an active abolitionist, writing articles for newspapers and pamphlets for anti-slavery societies, and he also became popular on the lecture circuit.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Sprague “threw open his law office as a recruiting” station, and following his patriotic speeches, 50 men enlisted and were assigned to the 7th Connecticut Infantry. Sprague followed that up by enlisting another 100 men who unanimously elected him captain. On Nov. 20, his men became Company H of the 13th Connecticut Infantry. Each day at the training camp in New Haven, Sprague drilled and instructed his men to become effective and disciplined soldiers.

On March 17, 1862, the 13th Infantry left New Haven for Ship Island, off the delta of the Mississippi River. The island had been seized by Union forces under the overall command of Gen. Benjamin Butler in December 1861. When the 13th arrived at Ship Island on April 13, it was attached to the 1st Brigade of the Department of the Gulf commanded by Butler. On May 1, the combined forces took New Orleans, and the 13th was housed in the customs house.

Because of Sprague’s strong moral belief that slavery was wrong, he was soon at odds with Butler. Butler was also opposed to slavery but found himself in an awkward situation in New Orleans. By mid-summer, 10,000 fugitive slaves had crowded into the city, seeking the protection of the Yankee troops. Unfortunately, because of a Confederate blockade, the city was cut off from supplies. Butler issued an order that no more former slaves would be allowed into New Orleans, and slave owners would come to claim their “property.” The New York Times reported that, on June 6, “two men dragged a negro” out of where he had been hiding. The Times article then stated, “Captain Sprague was officer of the day. He hastened to the scene, and with drawn sword, made his way through the crowd, and brought back negro and kidnappers, releasing the former and dismissing the latter in disgrace.” It appeared that Sprague had directly “disobeyed an order commanding him to deliver up a fugitive slave to the owner.”

Aside from a few raids in Louisiana, the 13th saw little action for the remainder of 1862. On April 14, 1863, while leading his men in a charge at Irish Bend, La., Sprague received wounds when a bullet struck his raised sword,and fragments ripped into his wrist and face. Using his handkerchief to bind his wounds, Sprague continued to fight.

Confederate forces held the town of Port Hudson, a strategic site that prevented the Union from sending troops and supplies down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Union forces attacked Port Hudson on May 27, 1863, but the assault was repulsed, and soldiers on both sides dug in.

Sprague volunteered to lead his men on an assault of the fortification, planned for July 4. The assault was successful. On July 8, the Confederate forces at Port Hudson surrendered.

The 13th was next assigned to assist Gen. Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley campaign in Virginia. On Sept. 19, 1863, the Battle of Opeguon took place, and, as the Confederate forces of Gen. Jubal Early made a massive assault on the Union soldiers, Sprague and the 13th held their position, allowing the bulk of the remaining Union troops to escape. Soon Sprague and his men were surrounded and captured. While in Confederate prisons, Sprague received three quick promotions in October and November: first to major, then to lieutenant colonel and ultimately to full colonel. In February 1865, he was paroled from prison and rejoined the Union Army.

When the war ended in 1865, most of the Union soldiers were released. However, the Army retained Col. Sprague’s services to serve on several court-martial tribunals and as superintendent of the Freedman’s Bureau in Athens, Ga. On April 28, 1866, Sprague was mustered out of the Army.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.