Pauline Cushman was a stage actress who later became a spy for the Union army. Born Harriett Wood in New Orleans in 1833, Cushman was raised in Michigan but returned to Louisiana at age 18 to became a stage actress, eventually changing her name to Pauline Cushman.
Cushman married her husband Charles Dickinson in 1853, but after Dickinson joined the Union army and died of dysentery in 1862, Cushman returned to the stage in a production of Seven Sisters at Woods Theater in Louisville, Kentucky. It was during this time that Cushman was approached by two paroled Confederate soldiers who offered her money to toast Confederate President Jefferson Davis during a performance, as described in her authorized biography “The Life of Pauline Cushman”:
“At length the momentous hour arrived, and, advancing in her theatrical costume to the foot-lights, our heroine, goblet in hand, gave, in a clear, ringing voice, the following toast: ‘Here’s to Jeff. Davis and the Southern Confederacy. May the South always maintain her honor and her rights!’ The young girl had prepared herself for a fearful outbreak of popular opinion, but for a moment even the hearts of the audience seemed to stop beating.”
Cushman was promptly fired from the production, since they now believed her to be a Confederate sympathizer. After her dismissal from the production, she began her career as a Union spy, posing as a camp follower in Confederate camps in Kentucky and Tennessee. After visiting the camp of General Braxton Bragg in May of 1863, Cushman managed to obtain the general’s battle plans but aroused suspicion and was caught. She was tried in a military court and sentenced to death but her execution was delayed when she became ill. Shortly after, the Union army invaded Shelbyville, Tennessee, where she was being held, forcing the Confederates to flee without her.
Despite her brush with death, Cushman continued to spy for the Union army and was awarded the honorary rank of Brevet-Major by President Abraham Lincoln, eventually earning the nickname “The Spy of Cumberland.”
In 1864, Cushman published a memoir titled “The Romance of the Great Rebellion” and began touring the country giving lectures about her time as a spy, gaining so much fame and notoriety that she was even featured in P.T. Barnum’s circus show.
Cushman tried to resume her acting career in California, where she married for a second time in 1872, but was widowed less than a year later. She later worked in logging camps in Santa Cruz, where she met her third husband, and moved to Arizona to run a hotel with him. After the marriage ended in a separation in 1890, Cushman moved back to California. Riddled with arthritis and rheumatism in her later years, Cushman became addicted to pain medication and committed suicide by taking an overdose of opium in San Francisco in 1897. She was buried with military honors in the Golden Gate National Cemetery.
“The Romance of the Great Rebellion, or the Mysteries of the Secret Service”; Pauline Cushman, 1864
“The Life of Pauline Cushman: the Celebrated Union Spy and Scout”; Ferdinand L. Sarmiento; 1865
“Women in the American Civil War”; Lisa Tendrich Frank; 2008
Mothers At War: The Thrilling Adventures of Pauline Cushman: http://mothersatwar.com/stories/thrilling-adventures-pauline-cushman/
Smithsonian Institute: Pauline Cushman: http://www.civilwar.si.edu/leaders_cushman.html
National Park Services: Pauline Cushman: http://www.nps.gov/resources/person.htm?id=76
Ohio State University: Pauline Cushman: http://ehistory.osu.edu/world/PeopleView.cfm?PID=90