April 9, 1863 (Thursday)
The Lincoln Family had been visiting with General Joe Hooker and the Army of the Potomac at Falmouth, Virginia for several days now. Arriving on the 5th, they were treated to a grand cavalry review on the 6th, a visit with the soldiers the following day, and more reviews followed after. It was a wonderful time with a carnival-like atmosphere. Young Tad Lincoln could be seen all over the place spurring his little pony to to and fro, while his mother and father simply relaxed for the first time in what seemed like ages.
After a day spent visiting the camps, General Dan Sickles held a sort of makeshift collation. It was here that President Lincoln met with some very forward ladies. One in particular was Agnes Elisabeth Winona Leclerc Joy, now known simply as Princess Salm-Salm.
Agnes was born in Vermont, but had a flair for the spectacular and extravagant. Though only eighteen, she had traveled with a circus and been an actress in Cuba. On a whim, she found her way to Washington, DC and married the Prussian Prince Felix Salm-Salm, who was a colonel in a New York Regiment. The spring of 1863 found her with her prince at the encampment of the Army of the Potomac.
“They were to stay at General Hooker’s head-quarters,” related Princess Salm-Salm in her memoirs, “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.”
And so Mrs. Lincoln elected to stay back at headquarters while Mr. Lincoln attended the dinner party. As he entered Princess Salm-Salm approached their host, General Sickles. According to Julia, the wife of General Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s Chief-of-Staff, the Princess whispered to Sickles, “General, he is a dear, good man, we want to kiss him; would it do any harm?”
Julia Butterfield continues:
“Not a bit of harm. I am only sorry not to be in his place,” was the gallant reply. A glance from the Princess toward the ladies following in her train was all that was necessary. They quickly surrounded Mr. Lincoln, embracing and kissing him with eagerness and fervor, although it was not easy for them to reach up six feet four. If a squadron of cavalry had surrounded the President and charged right down upon him, he could not have been more helpless, or more confused, yet he smiled and laughed, and seemed warmly touched by this public expression of hearty, sincere admiration and sympathy.
According to other reports, only the Princess kissed him, but she did it three times! “Once right, once left and once on the mouth – amid considerable gaiety.” Noah Brooks, the reporter on the scene, described but one kiss. The Princess, he relates, approached the President “by flying at him, and imprinting a bouncing kiss on his surprised and not altogether attractive face.” Lincoln collected himself and “thanked the lady, but with evident discomposure.” They tried to explain to the President 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.”
However it happened, word quickly got back to Mrs. Lincoln. “Now, if it be true that village gossip runs an express train,” related Mrs. Butterfield after the war, “it may be said that camp gossip goes by telegraph.” That night, the President and Mrs. Lincoln could be heard fighting it out.
As Julia Butterfield put it: “‘But, mother, hear me,’ the President pleaded. ‘Don’t mother me,’ rejoined the indignant spouse; ‘and as for General Sickles, he will hear what I think of him and his lady guests. It was well for him that I was not there at the time.'”
If the President was in the dog house, General Sickles could very well have been dead as far as Mrs. Lincoln was concerned. All through the next day (this was probably the 8th or the 9th), whenever Sickles came near her, she “would have nothing to say to him—not a word, not a look.”
Wishing to set the matter straight, Mr. Lincoln used a bit of levity and punnery to bring his dear wife around. At a dinner where both Mrs. Lincoln and General Sickles were in attendance, the President told anecdotes and old timey stories, as was his penchant. All at the table were filled with giggles and merriment – except for Mrs. Lincoln who was stone-faced and cold.
And so we’ll again let Mrs. Butterfield take over:
At length Mr. Lincoln turned to General Sickles, and said: “I never knew until last night that you were a very pious man.” Quite taken back by this unmerited statement, Sickles replied that he feared he had been misinformed. “Not at all,” said the President, with simulated gravity. “Mother says you are the greatest Psalmist in the army. She says you are more than a Psalmist, you are a Salm-Salmist.”
This was too much for Mrs. Lincoln’s gravity. The good lady joined in the hearty laughter all round the table, and forgave General Sickles.
With this harrowing incident of national security put to rest, President Lincoln spent the rest of his time with the Army of the Potomac in relative ease. On the 8th, he watched a review of four entire corps and a battalion drill given by the Duryee Zouaves, complete with commands bellowed in French.
Throughout his stay, one thing bothered Lincoln (and it certainly was the kisses from the Princess). Whenever General Hooker would talk of taking Richmond, it was with an air of absolute certainty. “When I get to Richmond,” he would say, before saying again, “After we have taken Richmond.” The arrogance gave the President pause.
To the reporter, Noah Brooks, Lincoln confided, “That is the most depressing thing about Hooker. It seems to me that he is over confident.”
And on this day, the day before the Lincolns departed, good news came to them from Charleston. Ironically enough, it came not from Northern sources, but from Confederate pickets across the Rappahannock. “You have taken Charleston!” came the call from the gray-clad soldiers. This was news indeed! Lincoln, wisely, seemed to take it with a grain of salt. It was, of course, absolutely not true.
As he was about to leave (this probably happened on the 10th), Lincoln became serious with General Hooker and General Darius Couch, whom Lincoln had called to join them. “I want to impress upon you two gentlemen,” he spoke, “in your next fight, put in all your men.”
Over the next couple of days, following the Presidential egress, General Hooker would devise a new plan for whipping the Confederate Army.1
- Sources: Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr.; The Lincolns by Daniel Mark Epstein; Ten Years of My Life by Agnes Elizabeth W. Salm-Salm; Soldier Princess: The Life & Legend of Agnes Salm-Salm in North America by David Coffey; A Biographical Memorial of General Daniel Butterfield
edited by Mrs. Julia Lorrilard Safford Butterfield; Washington in Lincoln’s Time by Noah Brooks; Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears. This, as you can imagine, was an incredibly fun post to research and write. I never meant to dwell only on the Princess Salm-Salm story (which I don’t think even happened on this date), but there we are, and I hope you enjoyed it. [↩]