Princess Agnes Made a Difference

Vermont-born Agnes Joy made a difference in the world. Agnes had a mass of unruly red hair, a slim figure and a zest for life. Her American Indian grandmother called Agnes, “Winona,” which means “Flame.” Hannah Delilah Joy, Agnes´s mother, was President Lincoln´s cousin and because Agnes´s father, Captain Edmond Johnston, was posted to Washington, D.C., the teenaged Agnes and her sister were frequent attendees at capital social events. It would have been impossible to ignore Agnes as she raced her horse throughout the muddy streets of the U.S. capital, her red hair and svelte figure attracting the attention of every eligible bachelor and made her the subject of conversations. Some gossips claimed she was a circus rider.

Because of his many affairs, gambling and profligate lifestyle, Prince Felix had been sent from his father´s court of Furstentum. Prince Felix was chief of staff to General Blenker when he was introduced to Agnes during a ball at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 1861. Her family renounced Agnes when she converted to Catholicism to marry Prince Felix Salm-Salm in 1862. However, her family later accepted the marriage and Agnes.

For the next four years Agnes attached herself to her husband´s regiment. Prince Felix was appointed commander of the New York regiment. During the U.S. Civil War there were a few understaffed field hospitals. So, with only compassion and a strong will, Princess Agnes began a campaign to alleviate the suffering and pain of the wounded and dying Union Soldiers. Her detractors railed against her, not because of her humanitarian actions, but because she was a woman. Her behavior did cause some concern among the War Ministry and eventually her uncle, President Abraham Lincoln. As he pinned the Captain´s Star on her, he said, “That which many people only use as a muscle, she uses as a heart.”

When the U.S. Civil War ended, Prince zu Salm-Salm was a U.S. general, but he felt the need to go to Mexico where he joined Maximilian´s army and was soon captured along with the emperor. Agnes obtained a travel pass and was determined to save the lives of her husband and the emperor. Vultures pecked at the dead and rotting bodies that hung from trees and brushed against her shoulders along the road from Vera Cruz to Queretaro, north of Mexico City. Neither the nightmare scenes, nor being shot at distracted Princess Agnes. In her biography she wrote, “I was more annoyed than frightened . . . luckily, they didn´t hit me or my horse.” 

When she finally met President Benito Juárez, Agnes went down on her knees and pleaded for the lives of both Maximilian and her husband. The event is portrayed in an 1873 painting by Manuel Ocaranza. Reportedly, Juárez responded in a low, sad voice, “I´m sorry, Madame. Even if all the queens and kings of Europe . . .” Juárez was able to spare the life of Prince Felix, but the prince was exiled from Mexico without his wife. Agnes would follow later. According to her biography, the day before Maximilian was executed he said to Princess Agnes, “You are the only person who really did something for me.” In Europe, Prince Felix and Princess Agnes zu Salm-Salm were accepted at court because of their attempts to free Maximilian.

Prince Felix died in August of 1870, at the age of 39, while fighting the Franco-Prussian War. Just as she had during the U.S. Civil War, Princess Agnes ministered to the dying and the wounded. Her sacrifices were recognized by the King of Prussia when he awarded her the Prussian Medal of Honor. He was prevented from awarding Princess Agnes the Iron Cross because she was a woman.

In 1881 Princess Agnes zu Salm-Salm helped organize the American Red Cross in Germany, despite the U.S. Government´s opposition. Princess Agnes kept a diary, published as Ten Years of My Life, in which she wrote about her daily life and many adventures.

Princess Agnes zu Salm-Salm died December 21, 1912, at the age of 67, in poverty, in a rented room.

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