Naval Setback and a Princess (April 17, 1863)

A Currier & Ives print of Samuel DuPont's failed April 7 attack on Charleston, South Carolina (Library of Congress).

A Currier & Ives print of Samuel Du Pont’s failed April 7 attack on Charleston, South Carolina (Library of Congress).

In his letter of April 17, Meade writes about Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont’s failure to capture Charleston, South Carolina, with a flotilla of monitors. The Confederate defenders badly shot up the Union ironclads, which didn’t even make it past Fort Sumter. Du Pont asked to be relieved as head of the blockading fleet and was replaced by John Dahlgren, whose son, Ulric, would later serve as an aide to Meade.

The Princess “Slam Slam” to whom Meade prefers was actually Princess Salm-Salm, the American wife of Felix Constantin Alexander Johann Nepomuk, Prince Salm-Salm. The Prussian aristocrat and cavalryman had traveled to the United States and volunteered to fight for the Union. His wife was the former Agnes Elizabeth Winona Leclerc Joy, who had been born in Vermont. She met her future husband in Washington. Below Meade’s letter I have included an account of the princess by Noah Brooks, the newspaperman who accompanied Lincoln on his trip to visit the army. He included it in his 1895 book Washington in Lincoln’s Time. I have also included Princess Salm-Salm’s own recollections of Lincoln, taken from her 1876 book Ten Years of My Life.

I regret to see you are in bad spirits and take so much to heart our apparent reverses. The affair at Charleston was pretty much as I expected, except I did think the ironclads would be able to pass Sumter and get at the town. I did not expect this would give us the place, or that they could reduce the batteries. They never have yet reduced any batteries of consequence, except those at Port Royal and Fort Donelson, but they have proved their capacity to run by them and stand being shot at, which I think they did in an eminent degree at Charleston. I see some of the papers are disposed to criticise and find fault with duPont, but I have just read a vigorous defense of him in the New York Tribune, so he is all right. You must not be so low-spirited. War is a game of ups and downs, and we must have our reverses mixed up with our successes. Look out for “Fighting Joe’s” army, for the grand reaction in our favor. A big rain storm we had on the 14th has kept us quiet for awhile, but Joe says we are to do great things when we start.

The great lady in the camp is the Princess Slam Slam, who is quite a pretty young woman. The Prince Slam Slam has a regiment in Sigel’s corps.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 366. Available via Google Books.

Here are Noah Brooks’ recollections of Princess Salm-Salm:

Princess Salm-Salm (Librayr of Congress).

Princess Salm-Salm (Library of Congress).

While the President and his party were with the Army of the Potomac at the time previously referred to, pleasant collations were occasionally served at the headquarters of the various corps commanders whose troops were being reviewed. At a luncheon given by General Sickles at his headquarters, among the ladies present was the Princess Salm-Salm, whose husband was a staff-officer in the army. This lady attracted much admiration by her graceful and dashing riding in the cavalcade that attended the reviews. Before her marriage she was a Miss Joyall of Philipsburg. It was this remarkable woman who astonished the President, on his entering General Sickles’s headquarters, by flying at him, and imprinting a bouncing kiss on his surprised and not altogether attractive face. As soon as he could collect himself and recover from his astonishment, the President thanked the lady, but with evident discomposure; whereupon some of the party made haste to explain that the Princess Salm-Salm had laid a wager with one of the officers that she would kiss the President. Her audacious sally won her a box of gloves.

I have called the princess remarkable; and her career certainly deserves a parenthetical note, for she was a conspicuous figure in some social circles of Washington during Lincoln’s time. Her parents were of humble origin, living in Philipsburg, at the Canadian end of Lake Champlain, called Missisquoi Bay. The girl earned her living by service among the neighboring farmers, but subsequently became an actress in a strolling company of players. From this time her life was picturesque and varied. It was said that her well-known skill and deftness in the care and management of horses were acquired when she was a circus-rider; at that period of her checkered career she was billed as “Miss Leclerq.” Prince Salm-Salm served as a volunteer staff-officer during our war, after which he and his wife went to Mexico, where they identified themselves with the failing cause of the Emperor Maximilian. The lady narrated her remarkable adventures in Mexico in a bright book, and the couple returned to Austria, whence the prince had been previously expelled on account of his profligate habits, but where he was now made welcome and was given a pension and a post in one of the royal palaces near Vienna. It was subsequently reported that this American princess joined herself to the French forces under the Geneva cross, in the Franco-Prussian war, and that her husband was killed while fighting on the same side at the battle of Gravelotte.

 From Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time (New York: Century Co., 1895), pp. 68-70. Available via Google Books here.

The Princess’s account. Curiously, she does not mention the kissing incident.

Prince Salm-Salm (Library of Congress).

Prince Salm-Salm (Library of Congress).

There were, of course, plenty of newspaper reporters in our camp; and as they had not much to write about the war, they described our sports and festivals, which descriptions tempted many people to pay us a visit; and even Mr. Lincoln, or perhaps Mrs. Lincoln, could not resist . The announcement of this visit caused, of course, great excitement; and preparations were made to entertain them as well as possible. They were to stay at General Hooker’s head-quarters; but the real maitre de plaisirs was General Sickles, who had been in Europe, and who knew all about it. He wanted to introduce even some novelties of a monarchical smack, and proposed to appoint for the time of the visit some ladies of honour to attend on Mrs. Lincoln. This plan was, however, not to the liking of the American ladies, each of whom thought herself quite as sovereign as the wife of the President.

President Lincoln’s features are well known. People said that his face was ugly. He certainly had neither the figure nor features of the Apollo of Belvedere; but he never appeared ugly to me, for his face, beaming with boundless kindness and benevolence towards mankind, had the stamp of intellectual beauty. I could not look into it without feeling kindly towards him, and without tears starting to my eyes, for over the whole face was spread a melancholic tinge, which some will have noticed in many persons who are fated to die a violent death.

A German author, I think it is L. Tieck, says somewhere that one loves a person only the better on discovering in him or her something funny or ridiculous, and this remark struck me as very correct. We may worship or revere a perfect person; but real warm human affection we feel towards such as do not overawe us, but stand nearer to us by some imperfection or peculiar weakness provoking a smile. President Lincoln’s appearance was peculiar. There was in his face, besides kindness and melancholy, a sly humour nickering around the corners of his big mouth and his rather small and somewhat tired looking eyes.

He was tall and thin, with enormously long loose arms and big hands, and long legs ending with feet such as I never saw before; one of his shoes might have served Commodore Nutt as a boat. The manner in which he dressed made him appear even taller and thinner than he was, for the clothes he wore seemed to be transmitted to him by some still taller elder brother. In summer, when he wore a suit made of some light black stuff, he looked like a German village schoolmaster. He had very large ears standing off a little, and when he was in a good humour I always expected him to flap with them like a good-natured elephant.

Notwithstanding his peculiar figure, he did not appear ridiculous; he had of the humourous just as much about him as the people like to see in public characters they love. Lincoln was beloved by the Americans more than any other man; he was the most popular President the United States ever had, Washington and Jackson not excepted.

I need not say that everything was done by the commanding generals to entertain Mrs. Lincoln and the President, who on reviewing the troops was everywhere received with heartfelt cheers.

From Agnes Elizabeth W. Salm-Salm, Ten Years of My Life (Richard Bentley & Son, 1876), pages 44-46. Available from Google Books here.

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