Saturday, December 12, 2015

The American Princess

Some people have an absurdly improbably life, and Agnes was certainly one of those.  In her lifetime, she was internationally famous, but today, surprisingly few even remember her.  The exact details of her life are almost impossible to discover, as she seems to have helped spread some of the countless rumors that surrounded her during her lifetime.  And despite autobiographies from both Agnes and her husband still existing, there remain more questions than answers about her life.

Despite many photos, there is even confusion about her actual appearance.  Seemingly reliable reports list her as both short and tall, and her hair was either black, red, blond, or prematurely white.  (From the photographs, I think we can eliminate the prematurely white.)

Though she—and her husband—were born on Christmas Day, the exact year is a little uncertain.  In her autobiography, she claimed that it was 1846, but it’s possible that she was born as early as 1840.

Nor do we know much about her early years.  In Europe, it was widely reported that she was of “Indian descent” while in America, she was thought to have been fathered by a European ambassador visiting America.  She always denied the rumors that she had once worked in a circus as a bareback rider and tightrope walker, or that she had been a stage actress in Havana, but certain passages in her autobiography confirm those stories.  It is certain that she lived in Havana for a few years before returning to the United States, but we may never know what she did there.
By the start of the American Civil War, the details of her life begin to come into focus.  Agnes Elizabeth Winona Leclercq Joy moved to Washington, DC in 1861.  In the early days of the Civil War, the capitol was an exciting place to be, and Agnes was one of thousands of people who flocked to excitement of a city embroiled in war.  Several young society ladies amused themselves in the endless parties and balls held by the torrent of Army officers gathering before actual battle commenced.

One of these officers, Colonel Felix Constantin Alexander Johann Nepomuk, the Prince of Salm-Salm, was immediately attracted to the short, tall, redheaded, blonde who could sit a horse amazingly well.  The Habsburg prince was the younger brother of the reigning Prince of Salm-Salm, a small principality along the Rhine.  Since Felix was not going to inherit either the throne or the family fortune, he spent his entire life fighting in various wars.  Though only 33 years old, he had already fought in two wars in both the Austrian and Prussian Armies.
Although Agnes and Felix did not yet have a common language between them, they fell in love and were quickly married.  As Agnes later wrote, “We did most of our communicating with our eyes, a language we both spoke fluently.” 

The newly minted Prinzessin zu Salm-Salm insisted on following her husband to the front, where, despite not having any medical training, she was quite active in caring for the injured soldiers.  And since the medical wing of the Army was chronically short of supplies, the princess remedied this problem by simply stealing from the supply trains of the officers.  Evidently, you can get away with this if you are a lovely princess and the wife of a colonel.

Well....almost get away with it.  At one point, the controversy about stolen supplies became something of a scandal that reached the White House.  President Lincoln personally mediated the solution, and in the process, pinned captain's bars onto the gown of the princess.  The legality of this promotion is a little murky, but very few people argue with either a princess or a president.

One person who could argue with President Lincoln, however, was Mary Todd Lincoln.  When the press reported that the “Captain” had kissed the President on both cheeks and the lips, several Washington sources reported loud public arguments within the White House about the incident.  In her autobiography, the princess reports that the incident was true, and she had kissed the somewhat surprised president in order to win a bet with the wives of other officers.

When the war was over, the newly breveted General Salm-Salm and his wife volunteered their services to Emperor Maximilian in Mexico.  Not only was the Emperor a distant cousin, but there was a fresh war between the troops of ousted Mexican President Juarez and the French backed army of Maximillian.  And Maximillian was interested in attracting former Union officers from America—he already had a lot of former Confederate officers seeking employment--hoping that their presence might dissuade the United States from offering support to President Juarez.

Napoleon III had invaded Mexico during the American Civil War and had installed the Habsburg prince and younger brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, as a puppet emperor despite this being a violation of the American Monroe Doctrine which stated that European powers could no longer seek new territorial gains in the New World.  This act was a clear violation of the doctrine, but in America, Americans were a little too busy killing other Americans to do much about it.  But by the fall of 1865, the Civil War was over, and the United States moved 50,000 troops to the Mexican border as a reminder to Napoleon that it was time to pull his troops—and Maximillian—out of Mexico.

The French troops did leave and Maximillian almost went with them, but Maximillian’s mother was the Princess Sophie of Bavaria.  She wrote her beloved son, telling him to remember that he was a Habsburg and that 'Habsburgs never run'.  This was the same thing her grandson Archduke Franz Ferdinand said when advised not to venture out in an open automobile in Sarajevo one day in 1914.  Since his assassination touched off World War I, one is forced to conclude that Princess Sophie was correct—Habsburgs may not run, but they are frequently carried.  (There is a persistent rumor that Sophie had actually fathered Maximillian with her close personal friend Napoleon II--if this is true, then Max certainly did not inherit any of his grandfather’s military skills.  It would also mean that it was Napoleon IV who sent Napoleon III to Mexico, but that would require a hell of a lot of history books to be rewritten.)
The Prince rose through the ranks of the Imperial Mexican Army rapidly, so that by the time he was captured along with Emperor Maximillian, he was a Colonel in command of cavalry troops.  Imprisoned in a convent, the Princess worked tirelessly to get the lives of the Emperor and her husband spared.  She sent telegrams around the world, garnering international support for clemency for Maximillian.  She also personally met with Mexican generals, ambassadors, and, eventually, with President Juarez himself. 

Pleading for the emperor’s life on her knees, the answer from Juarez left no doubt.  “I’m sorry Madame to see you on your knees before me; but even if all the queens and kings of Europe were in your place, I still wouldn’t be able to save his life. I’m not the one who takes it, it’s the people that rule his life and mine.”   A painting of this scene by Manuel Ocaranza is still popular in Mexico.
Since a pardon was impossible, the American Princess began planning an escape.  If enough money could be raised, the officers of the Mexican Army—many of which were deserters from the French Army—could be bribed.  The Emperor and her husband could potentially flee to Veracruz, which was still in the hands of the Emperor’s army.  The Elizabeth, an Austrian warship, could return them to Europe…but all these plans quickly fell apart when Emperor Maximillian simply would not cooperate.  Habsburg to the end, when he was finally ready to escape, he demanded that a proper royal retinue accompany him.  In all, he thought that an escape party could be no fewer than six people...And the escapees would have to be provisioned with wine, chocolate, swords, riding whips, and suitable horses.  Perhaps the strangest requirement of all was that he refused to cut off his distinctive blond beard, lest that anyone should discover that the emperor had a weak chin.

Some historians have suggested that the famous insanity of Carlota, Maximillian’s mad wife, was a symptom of tertiary syphilis, a disease she caught from her husband.  It is quite possible that Max, too, was beginning to go a little mad.
Maximillian was executed by firing squad June 19, 1867.  Before he died, he bestowed upon the princess the title Lady of Honour of the San Carlos Order and promoted the prince to the rank of general and bestowed the title of the Order of the Guadalup.  Since these royal titles were only significant in the royal court of Emperor Maximillian and President Juarez was executing all the Imperial officers with the rank of general, these were dubious honors.  Still, it’s the thought that counts, right?

While the Princess was unsuccessful at arranging the sparing of Max's life, she was able to get President Juarez to commute the Prince's death sentence to life imprisonment, then to allow an early release in exchange for a vow never to return to Mexico.
The Prince and Princess returned to Europe where their efforts on behalf of Maximillian made them the darlings of the Austrian Court.  And--luckily for the Prince--the Franco-Prussian War was just starting and he was quickly made a Major in the Prussian army, serving with the grenadier guards.  The Princess, once again, accompanied her husband to the front where she served with the medical staff.  For her efforts, she was awarded the Cross of Merit for Women and Girls.  (She was denied the Iron Cross as the award had never been given to a woman.)

In August, 1870, the Prince was killed during the Battle of Gravelotte while leading his men into battle.  Though shot in the right shoulder, he transferred his sword to his left hand and continued to lead his men until shot twice more.  While it is probably impossible to count all the battles he had participated in, this was his fifth war.

Widowed at the age of only 25, the Prinzessin zu Salm-Salm retained her title the rest of her life.  Working tirelessly to raise money for military hospitals, the organization she worked with eventually became known as the Red Cross.

Born an American, she traveled the world, earned the rank of Captain in the American Army, participated in three wars, and knew the crowned heads of state across Europe (and in Mexico).  She was an American-born royal princess almost a century before Grace Kelly (and led a much more adventuresome life than that famous princess), yet almost no one has heard of her.


  1. Sounds like a pistol. I can imagine the scene with Abe and Mary Todd. Abe was a very patient man with her.

  2. As my family has always said she was "A woman ahead of her time". She was my aunt and I grew up hearing the stories. She raised my great grandmother who was with her when she passed in 1912. She was a very strong willed woman but also mischievous.