Agnes Salm-Salm (December 25, 1844 – December 21, 1912) was the American wife of Prince Felix zu Salm-Salm, a Prussian mercenary beside whom she played a role in the American Civil War, the Mexican Civil War between President Benito Juárez and the Austrian archduke Maximilian I of Mexico, and the Franco-Prussian War.
American Civil War
She was born Agnes Elisabeth Winona Leclerc Joy in Franklin, Vermont, the daughter of American general William Leclerc Joy (1793–c. 1886) and Julia Willard (died 1882). Her paternal grandfather was Mica Joy (1753–1826) who married Mercy Terrill (1764–1843).
Little is known of the early life of Agnes Salm-Salm. Many scholars believe that she worked in the circus, then as an actress in Cuba. In 1861 she returned to the United States but soon left her home in Vermont to visit her sister in Washington, D.C. who was getting married. Agnes stayed around Washington when she met Felix Salm-Salm. Agnes Leclerc Joy was riding her horse one morning through the city when Felix first saw her and he made sure she was invited to a party that he would be attending. Soon Felix proposed to her and they were married in August 1862. Agnes could not be apart from Felix for too long and even followed him to the battlefield. At his camp she would care for the sick and wounded soldiers although she had no previous knowledge of medicine.
For four years she traveled with the troops through war-torn Virginia as the only woman. As the wife of a colonel she had access to supply wagons and luggage meant for the officers and would often steal supplies in order to care for the soldiers. This would spark a controversy that eventually would have to be settled by President Abraham Lincoln. In January 1863 the troops were ordered to go to Aquia Creek, Virginia, and of course Agnes followed her husband. Here she made a bet that she would give President Lincoln three kisses within the next few days on his visit to the camp, and she succeeded in doing so.
After the Civil War was over, Felix discovered an opportunity to join the army of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. When Agnes and Felix arrived in Mexico City, the French troops under François Achille Bazaine were leaving,as mounting diplomatic pressure from the United States persuaded Napoleon III to liquidate his Mexican venture.
When the Republicans surrounded Querétaro and Maximilian was forced to surrender, Agnes made great efforts to spare the life of Maximilian and her husband, traveling several times from Querétaro to Mexico City and San Luis Potosí where she held interviews with President Benito Juárez, General Mariano Escobedo, General Porfirio Díaz and several other prominent officers of the Republican Army. The evening of the execution Agnes kneeled and, crying, begged President Juárez to forgive the Emperor. The President's answer has become famous in Mexican history textbooks: "It causes me great pain, Madame, to see you like that on your knees; but even if every king and queen were in your place, I couldn't spare his life. It isn't me who takes it from him, it is the people and the law who claim his life". Upon Juárez's denial the brave woman answered, "Oh, if blood must be spilled, then take my life, the life of a useless woman; and spare that of a man who can still do much good in other country." It was all in vain. The scene was painted by the Mexican painter Manuel Ocaranza.
She then became busy planning an escape attempt for the emperor and her husband. The plan was to get Colonel Villanueva to escort the emperor to Veracruz to escape. But Villanueva would not go through with it without the cooperation of Colonel Palacios. A bribe was in order. Agnes had offered two promissory notes for 100,000 pesos to each of them which would be honored by Maximilian's brother Franz Joseph I of Austria. While they were in her parlor Agnes revealed the plan to Palacios, who had told her earlier that he sympathized with the emperor. Palacios was skeptical and said he would give her his answer in the morning. Agnes agreed, believing he would go through with it. A legend evolved from this encounter that includes Agnes undressing in front of the Colonel and offering herself as a bribe.
When Felix went to Europe to fight again in the Prussian Army, Agnes soon joined him via New York. In 1868 they arrived in Berlin. Because of their attempts to free Maximilian, the prince was again accepted at court along with his wife. In Europe she was the star of all the social circles in the capital as well as in Karlsruhe where she lived. During the war she continued to travel along with her husband and served among the medical staff. She was awarded the Prussian Medal of Honor for army relief work.
On August 18, 1870, Felix Salm-Salm was killed in combat at Saint-Privat-la-Montagne during the Battle of Gravelotte. After that his widow remained an active seeker for justice in the world. According to one source, in 1881 Agnes helped organize the American Red Cross. She wrote a book of memories titled Ten Years of My Life (2 vols. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1876). She died in poverty in Karlsruhe, Germany, on December 21, 1912.
- Coffey, David (2002). Soldier Princess: The Life and Legend of Agnes Salm-Salm in North America, 1861–1867. Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 978-1-58544-168-6.
- Salm-Salm, Agnes Elizabeth W. (1876). Ten Years of My Life, p. PR3, at Google Books. London: Richard Bentley & Sons.