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An actress and a Union Army spy during the Civil War.
Born as Harriet Wood in New Orleans, Louisiana, but grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where her father, a Spanish merchant, has established a Trading Post with Native Americans. Growing up, she used to ride horses and shoot shotguns while fantasying about becoming an actress. At 18, she moved to NYC to pursue her dream and took the stage name Pauline Cushman. She met Charles Dickinson, and in 1853 they got married and relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. At the onset of the Civil War, her husband enlisted in the Union Army as a musician but soon fell ill with dysentery and passed away a few months later.
Cushman, now a widow with two children, wanted to return to the stage. She left her children with her in-laws and moved to Louisville, Kentucky, which at the time was a Union state, full of Confederate sympathizers. In April 1863, while preparing to perform in the play The Seven Sisters, she was approached by two Confederate officers who offered her $350 for toasting the Confederate President during the play, instead of President Lincoln. Hesitated, Cushman turned to the Union authorities, who told her to accept the proposition, and so she did. She was immediately fired from the show but was offered a new job – a spy for the Union Army.
As a spy, Cushman utilized her acting skills and posed as a Confederate sympathizer. Sometimes dresses as a man and sometimes as a woman, she was able to befriend military commanders and gather information. Pretending to be a Southern woman in a boarding house, she managed to stop the boarding house’s mistress from poisoning Union soldiers, and while dressed as a man, she joined a Southern woman who brought confident documents to the south and had the Union to confiscate her papers. Cushman’s biggest mission was in 1864 when she entered a Confederate camp in Tennessee under the appearance that she is searching for her missing brother. She managed to steal drawings of fortification plans but was caught by Confederate soldiers. Though Cushman escaped captivity, she was captured and brought to trial before a military court. She was sentenced to hang, but her execution was delayed after becoming sick or pretending to be one. Eventually, by the time she got better, the Union had invaded the area, and she was spared.
After that incident, Cushman received public attention as well as recognition from General Garfield and President Lincoln. She was awarded the rank of brevet major and was honored as “Major of Calvary.” She received a military uniform, which she used in her lectures and performing tours after the war.
Over time, the public became exhausted hearing about war stories, and Cushman’s popularity had declined. She moved to San Francisco, and in 1872 she got married, but her husband passed away in the following year. A widow for the second time, Cushman moved to Arizona, where she met her third husband, Jeremiah Fryer. They ran together a hotel for ten years, but their marriage did not survive the death of their daughter, and they separated in 1890. Cushman, then living in poverty, returned to San Francisco and spent her last years working as a charwoman and seamstress. At the time, she suffered from rheumatism and arthritis and became addicted to pain medications. At the age of 60, Cushman had died from a morphine overdose. With her death, her Civil War honors and fame were recalled, and she was buried with full military honors.
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- She was the only girl in a family of seven children.
- She was married three times and had three children.
- In 1864, she had a one-woman show under P.T. Barnum, in which she performed her espionage exploits. The show was billed as “the greatest heroine of the age” and as the “Spy of the Cumberland.”
- Her story has been documented in the book The Life of Pauline Cushman: The celebrated Union Spy and Scout.
- She was depicted by Paula Raymond in the episode “The Wooing of Perilous Pauline” of the TV series Death Valley Days.
More About Her Legacy
* Honored as “Major of Calvary”
* Awarded the rank of brevet major
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One of Her Landmarks
Cushman's photo from ~1861-1865 .Photo credit - Brady's National Photographic Portrait Galleries, photographer - LOC