Pauline Cushman: The Spy of Cumberland

Pauline Cushman was a stage actress who later became a spy for the Union army.

Born Harriett Wood in New Orleans on June 10, 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, Colonel Spear and Captain J.H. Blincoe, who offered her money to toast Confederate President Jefferson Davis during a performance.

Offended, she visited the local provost-marshal, Colonel Moore, to report the men but Moore instead directed Cushman to carry out the toast, in hopes to embed her as a local Union spy.

Pauline Cushman circa 1855 -1865

Pauline Cushman circa 1855 -1865

A few nights later, Cushman did exactly that, 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. Then, however, it burst forth, and such a scene followed as beggars description. The good Union portion of the audience had sat at first spell-bound and horrified by the fearful treason thus outspoken, while even the ‘Secesh’ were frozen in the audacity of the act, though conscious that it was to occur. But then came the mingled storm of applause and condemnation. Fierce and tumultuous it raged, until it seemed as though it would never stop. Nor was the excitement behind the scenes less intense. Mr. McDonough, rushing up to our heroine, demanded in the most tragic tone ‘what she meant by such conduct’; while the rest of the professional gentlemen and ladies avoided her as though she had suddenly been stricken with some fearfully contagious disease.”

Cushman was promptly fired from the production, since they now believed her to be a Confederate sympathizer.

Since she had successfully gained the trust of the local Confederates, Moore offered her a position as a Union spy, which she accepted.

Cushman soon began posing as a camp follower in Confederate camps in Kentucky and Tennessee and disguising herself as a man while gathering information from soldiers in local saloons.

After visiting the camp of General Braxton Bragg in May of 1863, Cushman even 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.

Pauline Cushman photographed by C.D. Fredericks & co

Pauline Cushman photographed by C.D. Fredericks & co

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.

Pauline Cushman photographed by Mathew Brady

Pauline Cushman photographed by Mathew Brady

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:
Smithsonian Institute: Pauline Cushman:
National Park Services: Pauline Cushman:
Ohio State University: Pauline Cushman:

Pauline Cushman: The Spy of Cumberland
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10 thoughts on “Pauline Cushman: The Spy of Cumberland

  1. Steve G

    Thank you Rebecca for this one! Now I know a little more about her. I wonder though about her toast to Jeff Davis. Do you suppose she already had it in mind to be a spy and she did this to gain trust with Southern sympathizers?

  2. R.B. Brooks

    Hi Steve, I wonder what her motivation was too. I don’t have a physical copy of her memoir and the digitized copy online doesn’t allow previews. I’ll have to track a copy of the book down and see if she gives a reason for the toast.

  3. William Christen

    Have you read my book, Pauline Cushman, Spy of the Cumberland (Roseville, Minnesota, Edinborough Press, 2016)?

    William Christen

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      Hi William, no I don’t think I have. I should check it out! Thanks for telling me about it!


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