Friday, December 21, 2018

Nathan Sprague, 54th Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass's Son-In-Law

It is well known that Frederick Douglass, the noted black abolitionist, had two sons, Charles and Lewis, who served in the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Another son, Frederick Jr., served as a recruiting agent in the Mississippi River Valley. However, it is not as widely known that son-in-law, Nathan Sprague fought in the 54th as well.

Unfortunately, not a whole lot of information is available in Pvt. Nathan Sprague's service records. Sprague married Rosetta Douglass, the abolitionist's oldest child, on Christmas Eve, 1863. He was born enslaved in Prince Georges County, Maryland, about 1841, but by the late 1850s he had settled in Rochester, New York, where he worked as a gardener. 

Sprague's service records do tell us that he was 23 years old and eleven months when he enlisted in Company D of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry on September 3, 1864. The timing of Sprague's enlistment is interesting. He joined up after he was married, much later than his two brother-in-laws had signed up, and after his regiment's July 18, 1863 dramatic show of courage at Battery Wagner, made famous in the movie Glory. Perhaps Sprague was prompted into service by his wife, or felt pressure to join since his father-in-law's name appears (above) on his enlistment, or maybe he saw the service as an opportunity for career networking and future advancement. Maybe he just wanted to do his part in ending slavery and proving black men were as able to fight and thus entitled to equal citizenship rights as white men. 

The young enlistee was listed as 5 feet 6.5 inches tall. His hair, eyes, and complexion, were all described as black. Sprague enlisted for one year and received 1/3 for his $100 bounty upon signing up. It appears that he mustered out on August 20, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina.  

After the war, Sprague returned to civilian life like so many other Union veterans and found the transition difficult.  He bounced around from job to job, developed a stained relationship with his brother-in-laws, borrowed money often from his father-in-law, all while being defended by his wife. He and Rosetta eventually had seven children, six girls and a boy. Sprague died in Washington D.C. in 1907, and buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester.

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