Pauline Cushman - Union Spy

In 1863, a beautiful young actress was appearing in a theater in Union-controlled Louisville, KY when she was approached to give a toast to Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the stage for a considerable sum. The actress was a staunch Union supporter and at first wasn't interested. However, an idea came to her, and she approached the Union General in the area (Kentucky being a border state was forced to stay within the Union, despite the fact that half the state had sympathy for the Confederates). She offered her services as a spy for the Union. After testing her loyalties, she was given permission to accept the money and to make the toast. For her audacity, she was fired by the management. The actress's name? Pauline Cushman.

Pauline Cushman was actually born Harriet Wood in New Orleans in 1833. After her father lost all his money when she was 10, they subsquently moved to Michigan where Harriet grew up. She was a tomboy who loved to ride horses, and play sports as well as her 7 brothers. Her father had a violent temper and after a particularly nasty disagreement, when she was 18 she left home and moved to New York. She changed her name to Pauline Cushman, persumably taking the name Cushman after one of the most celebrated actreses of the day, Charlotte Cushman (who excelled in breeches parts, plays where she played men. Off stage, she liked to dress in men's clothes as well).

She wasn't very successful as an actress, and gave up the stage when she married a musician Charles Dickinson, who she met while appearing in a theater in her hometown of New Orleans. They moved to Cleveland near his family, while Charles took a job as a music teacher, living with his parents. Pauline gave birth to two children, Charles Jr. and Ida. When the South seceded from the Union and war was declared, Charles Dickinson joined the Union army as a musician in the band of the 41st Ohio Infantry.

Shortly after the battle of Shiloh, he was stricken with illness as were many in the army due to a poor diet, and harsh conditions. He was discharged and came home to his family, having lost over 50 pounds. Charlotte sent him to stay with his parents while he was ill instead of taking care of him herself. Her excuse was that she had two small children to think of and that his family could take care of him far better than she could. Charles Dickinson died in December of 1862 from head injuries he sustained from a fall. Pauline was not with him at the time which caused a rupture with her in-laws, particularly when she left the children with them to go back on the stage.

It was March of 1863 when she was infamously approached by two Confederate officers who offered her the considerable sum of $300 to propose a toast to Jefferson Davis from the stage. Thinking quickly she went to the Union provost marshal and told him what was what. The marshal recognized that Pauline's proposing the toast would lead people to believe that she was all for the South's cause, and that it could be useful in the future. She was recruited as a spy and told to make the toast.

"Here's to Jeff Davis and the Confederacy," she said during one of her performances, "May the South always maintain her honor and her rights."

At this time, during the war, most of the spies for the Union army were men, or freed slaves who used the ignorance of white Southerners to their advantage (after all no Southerner would expect a negro freed or otherwise to have the intelligence to be a threat or a credible spy. Sojourner Truth was a spy for the North during the Civil War). After Pauline was fired from the theater company, she became an instant celebrity with the Southerners. Her first assignment was to gather intelligence on local Southern sympathizers in order to find out where the Confederates were getting their information and their supplies.

Pauline eagerly set herself to the task. After all, in a way, it was like another acting job only this time with very real consequences. She was sent to Nashville to get instructions from Colonel Truesdail, chief of the Union Army police. He propsed that Pauline go behind enemy lines in order to scout out the state of Confederate defenses in Tennessee. He warned her that the mission was dangerous, and could result in her death if she were caught. However, despite knowing the hazards involved, Pauline accepted the challenge, taking the oath while clutching an American flag to her breast.

She was then publicly evicted from the Union lines, on the pretext that she was a Southern sympathizer. To cover her activities, Pauline told people that she was looking for her brother who she claimed was fighting on the Southern side. It worked like a charm. She quickly became the darling of the Southern troops. Her beauty and her ability to feign interest in her escorts gained her invitations from officers to accompany them along the Confederate lines. It was in this way that she was able to garner most of her information.

One day after she had been escorted by a Confederate captain around the neighboring county, he asked, "What would the Yankees give to know what we know."

Pauline replied, "What indeed!"

Pauline Cushman's fatal mistake was in not adhering to Truesdail's instructions to not make written notes or drawings of the fortifications of the enemy but to instead memorize everything, an easy enough task for an actress. Instead at Shelbyville and Tullahoma, she made drawings of the rebel works which she concealed in her boots between the inner and outer sole. She also stole a map from the desk of a Confederate officer.

She was arrested while attempting to make her way back to the Union lines. Escorted under heavy guard, she was delivered to Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who later served as the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan after the war. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Forrest was the only solider to enlist in the army as a private and end up as a General officer. He discovered and established new doctrines for mobile forces.

Pauline tried to escape but was thwarted. This time when she was searched, the incriminating notes were found. Although she was treated with deference by Forrest, it was made clear to her that she not try and escape again. Forrest told her that he had no time to investigate her case, so he passing her on to General Braxton Bragg at Shelbyville. She was also told that unless she could prove her loyalty the South, she was more than likely to be hanged as a spy.

When Pauline was questioned by Bragg, she told him her cover story, that she had been kicked out of the Union lines because of her Southern sympathies. When she was confronted with the sketches found in her boot, she claimed that they were guess work that she made up to fake out the Yankees so that she could go back and claim property that she was forced to leave behind when she was evicted.

Unfortunately her performance was not convincing enough. Instead of boos, and debris thrown on stage, Pauline was to be tried as a spy. For 10 days she waited for the verdict. Not suprisingly, she was found guilty. Here is where Pauline's story becomes miraculous. Prison conditions had eroded her health. Although she was ill, Pauline managed to convey that she was already at death's door. The authorities couldn't bring themselves to hang a dying woman. They decided to postpone her execution until such a time when she recovered her health. More fun for the viewing public as well.

While they were waiting for her to get better, the Union Army of the Cumberland under the direction of General Rosecrans began to advance on Tullahoma. The rebels were forced to flee Shelbyville on June 27, 1863, leaving Pauline behind. She was rescued by the Federal army three days before she was scheduled to be executed!

The trauma that she had undergone would stay with Pauline for the rest of her life. Clearly she suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome. Coming so close to death and yet cheating it. According to one of her biographers, "Fits of depression would seize her and great tears would steal unconsciously down her marble-like features."

Pauline's days as a spy were now over. With her cover blown, she was no more use to the Union army. However, in recognition of her service to the cause, Generals Gordon Granger and James A. Garfield (future president of the United States and victim of assassination) awarded her the honorary rank of major of calvary. What's a former actress and union spy to do? Go on the lecture circuit of course!

Under the auspices of P.T. Barnum, Pauline toured the North to great acclaim for several years, usually dressed in the uniform of an army major. She told paying audiences embellished stories of her days as a Union spy. Since her work for the Union had been secret, there was no one to cooborate or disprove her stories. However, tragedy was not far behind. Her first biography appeared in 1865, written by a friend Ferdinand Sarmiento with the grandiose title, Pauline Cushman: The celebrated Union spy and scout. Comprising her early history; her entry into the secret service of the Army of the Cumberland...prepared from her notes and memoranda.

In November 1864, her son Charles jr. died. Not longer after that her other child, Ida died as well by 1868. After the war, Pauline teamed up with Irish comedian, James M. Ward, touring the West for several years. She also continued to find work for awhile as an actress on the West Coast. She also remarried to man named August Fichter. The marriage was short-lived and she was once again left a widow. She married for the third and last time in 1879 to Jeremiah Fryer. Fryer was the sheriff in Pinal County, Arizona. The couple managed a hotel and stagecoach stop for a number of years, but by 1890 the marriage had floundered and Pauline moved to San Francisco and then later El Paso, TX. By now her beauty was fading and she had turned to opiates like laundanum to make it through the day and to ease the pain of rheumatism and arthritis.

Destitute, she applied to the Federal government for a widower's pension based on Charles Dickinson's military service. Finally in 1893, a pension of $8 a month was awarded but only for the ten years from her 1st husband's death until her remarriage in 1872. It came to a grand total of $1,000, just a little bit more than she had earned that long ago night when she agreed to toast Jefferson Davis.

Finally on December 2, 1893, in a boarding house in San Francisco, she overdosed from narcotics, amid rumors of suicide. Her last years had been spent as a seamstress and charwoman. The California division, Grand Army of the Republic had her buried with full military honors in the Presidio where her body resides today, bearing thesimple inscription, Pauline C. Fryer, Union Spy.

Sources for this post include Wikipedia

References: Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War - Peggy Caravantes

Pauline Cushman: Spy of the Cumberland - William Christen


Thanks for your comment. I meant to tell you that I have mentioned your blog to some people I know on one of the royalty sites I go on. I am really enjoying it. And last night I came across a royal mistress and thought that I should email you privately, to tell you! But I didn't have your email...or I probably would have!! LOL. Mine is if you want to email me privately!
Eliza Knight said…
That was fascinating! I never knew they had women spies during the civil war. How sad that her life was so hard though.
Eliza, yes, Pauline Cushman was one of several women spies during the Civil War. I plan on writing about another spy for the South, Rose O'Neal Greenhow after my brief foray into New York's most scandalous women.

Susan, I will definitely email you off the blog. I'm interested in knowing who the mistress is.
Sherry said…
Wonderful post as usual. I love you blog so much and check it every day for a new one. My readers tell me they look forward to my alerts that you have published a new one. Keep up the excellent work!
Thanks so much Sherry. I hope you enjoy the new post on Christine Keeler and The Profumo Affair. I have so many more women to write about, I sometimes don't know where to start.
She's AWESOME - I'm so sad about the end of her life.
I think that her time spying was the greatest acting performance of her life, and then once it was over, how do you top that? Plus suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder which no one knew what that was back then, its no wonder she started to self-medicate in her later years.
gwjchris said…
Thank you for mentioning my book, Pauline Cushman: Spy of the Cumberland (Roseville, MN: Edinborough Press, 2006). Feel free to contact me about the often quoted, but erronious details of her life.

Bill Christen

Popular posts from this blog

The Many Lives of Beryl Markham

Scandalous Women in Fiction: Irene Forsyte

Royal Princess, Royal Scandal - the sad life of Princess Margaret