Princess Agnes of Salm-Salm was born as Agnes Elisabeth Winona Leclerc Joy on 25 December 1844 in Vermont as the daughter of American general William Leclerc Joy and his second wife, Julia Willard. She may also have been born in 1845 as she told a reporter that she had been 16 years old when she married in 1862. 1
Little is known of her youth and Agnes herself tried to keep up the mystery in her own telling of her story. She was visiting her sister in Washington when she met Prince Felix of Salm-Salm, and they married on 30 August 1862 in a Catholic ceremony at Washington’s St. Patrick’s Church. Her husband had a post as adjutant of Louis Blenker in the Army of the Potomac, and in November he left to join his new command in northern Virginia. Agnes followed him a few days later.2 Agnes and her husband followed the army as it slogged towards a new encampment. They had “procured a large hospital tent, which was decorated very tastefully and even gorgeously; for amongst the soldiers were workmen of all trades.” Another tent housed the kitchen and a “negro servant girl”, whom Agnes has brought from Washington.3 Agnes mostly knew the more pleasant aspects of soldier life, and she had yet to see any fighting.4
They were visited by President Lincoln and his wife who reviewed the troops. Agnes planted a kiss on the cheeks of an astonished President. “The Princess Salm-Salm, a very beautiful woman, led the way… A glance from the Princess toward the ladies in her train was all that was necessary.”5 Agnes was almost sad to the see the American Civil War over.
Agnes and her husband would have no children. When her sister gave birth to her second child, Agnes wrote, “I felt very envious for I had no child, which made me quite unhappy.”6
Her husband then offered his services to Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. “To speak the truth, I was a soldier with all my soul, and war was my element.” Prince Felix had served the Austrian Empire as a young soldier, and he knew of the Austrian Archduke turned Emperor of Mexico.7 Agnes was to stay in Georgetown until Felix had established himself in Mexico.8 Quite by accident, they still arrived together in August of 1866. The experience was quite frightening. “You feel a shuddering creep over your whole body, for you are entering an atmosphere reminding you of the catacombs, coming from surrounding swamps from which a tropical sun distils poisons.”9 By then, the newfound Mexican Empire was well on its way to collapsing.
The adventurous Salms wished to stay in Mexico. Agnes wrote, “The life we were leading was pleasant enough, but my Hotspur Felix panted for war.” 10 Felix received permission to join Maximilian’s Belgian contingent as a volunteer. The Salms met with the Emperor’s party, and Felix was received in audience. In February 1867, Agnes and Felix watched from their balcony as the last French troops and Maximilian’s last support departed Mexico.11
Maximilian began to seek Felix’s advice on military matters. Finally, his star was on the rise.12 Agnes too decided to take charge. Agnes resolved to “try what I could do to save the Emperor and my husband.”13 Agnes personally tried to secure a deal for the surrender of Mexico City in exchange for safe passage for Maximilian and other Austrian, despite the fact that she had no authority to do so.14 On 27 April, Agnes left for Queretaro with a civilian escort, two unarmed coachmen, her maid and her dog.15 She arrived during the first week of May, where she met with General Escobedo, but he gave her no permission to go into the city where Felix now lay injured. 16 Even a visit to President Juarez did not get her into the city. Not much later, the Emperor and Felix were taken prisoner. Agnes received the news and went into the city without the required permission.17
She was received by the general who had her escorted to the Convent of San Teresita where many of the prisoners were housed. It was then that Agnes was introduced to the Emperor. “I shall never forget this first interview with the Emperor. I found him in a miserable bare room, in bed, looking very sick and pale. He received me with the utmost kindness, kissed my hand and pressed it in his, and told me how glad he was that I had come.” He gave her his blessing to begin negotiations in his name. The New York Herald reported, “The wife of Prince Salm-Salm, an American lady- nee Agnes le Clerg – closely related to President Johnson, made her way alone to San Luis Potosi to intercede with President Juarez for her husband’s life as well as that of Emperor Maximilian. The Lady has sped so far in her brave mission that yesterday, on her arrival here from San Luis, herself, the Emperor and Prince Salm-Salm had a long interview with General Escobedo, and I have reason to believe that terms have been arranged by which the lives of most foreigners will be spared.”18
Meanwhile, both Maximilian and Felix became the subject to trial by court-martial. It was soon clear to all that the trial would end with a guilty verdict and a likely execution. On 13 June, she was allowed to visit the Emperor, and she stayed with him until 8 in the evening chatting about what he would do once he was back in Europe. He asked her, should he not make it, to assure his mother of his love.19 On 16 June, Maximilian was condemned to death.
Agnes then travelled to President JJuarezin one last attempt to save Maximilian’s life. “When I heard these cruel words I became frantic with grief. Trembling in every limb and sobbing, I fell down on my knees and pleaded with words which came from my heart, but which I cannot remember. The President tried to raise me, but I held his knees convulsively and said I would not leave him before he had granted his life. I saw the President was moved; he as well as Mr Iglesia had tears in their eyes, but he answered with a low, sad voice, ‘I am grieved, Madame, to see you thus on your knees before me; but if all the Kings and Queens of Europe were in your place I could not spare that life. It is not I who take it, it is the people and the law; and if I should not do its will the people would take it and mine also.”Agnes then exclaimed that he might take her life if blood was wanted. He then raised her from her knees and told her that her husband would be spared, but that was it. Maximilian was executed on 19 June 1867. 20
Felix remained confined and would not believe that the President had spared his life. Felix’s trial went ahead as planned and he was condemned to death. He began to prepare for death, but by 22 July, the execution was postponed indefinitely. Instead, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Still, Agnes worked to free her husband.21 She finally secured his release in November, but they would not meet again in Mexico. Felix was ordered to leave immediately, and so he was forced to leave Agnes behind, for now. The following year, they were reunited in Paris.22
They were not welcomed home like heroes, and soon the couple were being hounded by creditors. Agnes faced poor health and depression. In 1869, they settled in Koblenz, and she began to study under a German surgeon, and she went with him to war as an assistant.23 Felix joined the Prussian army and participated in the Franco-Prussian war, but in August 1870, he was killed in battle. After burying her husband, Agnes returned to her duties with the army. She was awarded the Cross of Merit for Women and Girls for her work. After the war, she settled in Bonn, where she lost her sense of direction. An inheritance settled her money problems, and she managed to buy a house in Bonn. In 1876, she remarried to an English diplomat named Charles Henneage though she always remained Princess Agnes.
In 1899, she once more visited the United States. It had changed a lot since she had last seen it.
She died on 21 December 1912 in Karlsruhe and was buried in Bonn, in the same grave as Louise Runkel who had been a close friend of hers during the Franco-Prussian war. We do not know why she was not interred with her first husband.24
The grave of Princess Agnes can still be visited in Bonn. It is in the Alter Friedhof, not far from the Central Station.
- David Coffey – Soldier Princess p. 7
- David Coffey – Soldier Princess p. 16-17
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- David Coffey – Soldier Princess p. 81-82
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- David Coffey – Soldier Princess p. 86