Pauline Cushman: The Union Civil War Spy Who Was Also a Stage Actress

Photo Credit: Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Pauline Cushman may have been considered a mediocre actress, but she’s seen as one of the most successful Union spies of the American Civil War. Using her acting skills, she was able to access Confederate intel and help advance the efforts of Union forces.

A struggling actress

Born Harriet Wood, Pauline Cushman wished to become an actress and moved to New York City to pursue her aspirations. Unfortunately, she was unable to find work and moved back to her hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana, where she adopted her stage name and met the man who would become her first husband, theater musician Charles C. Dickinson.

Portrait of Pauline Cushman
Pauline Cushman. (Photo Credit: Matthew Brady Studio / Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0)

Pauline and Charles moved to Cleveland, Ohio to be closer to his family. After Charles died of dysentery not long after the start of the Civil War in 1863, Pauline relocated to Louisville, Kentucky and obtained a part in a play called The Seven Sisters.

At the time, Louisville was under Union control, with paroled Confederate officers walking its streets.

Pauline Cushman’s beginnings in espionage

Pauline Cushman’s entry into espionage began after being approached by two Confederate officers. They offered her up to $350 if she toasted to Confederate President Jefferson Davis during the play, instead of the scripted toast to President Abraham Lincoln. Concerned, she approached Col. Orlando Hurley Moore about the proposition and, to her surprise, was asked to accept the request and report back the following day.

Illustration of Pauline Cushman toasting Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy
Pauline Cushman toasting Confederate President Jefferson Davis. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Pauline’s change to the script, which read, “Here’s to Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy; may the South always maintain her honor and her rights,” was met with outrage from Union supporters and elation from Confederate sympathizers. She was fired for her actions, and later moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where her work as a spy began.

A Union spy in disguise

Reports surrounding Pauline Cushman’s duties as a spy are mired in myth. She was asked to gather intel about Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, and her exploits have been sensationalized over the years.

It’s said she once had a boardinghouse mistress arrested after she discussed her plan to poison the food and drink of Union soldiers lodging at the establishment. Another tale details the arrest of a Southern woman who was duped into believing Pauline was a Confederate and allowing her to accompany her on her travels. The result was the confiscation of the woman’s contraband medical supplies and documents.

Pauline Cushman in military uniform
Pauline Cushman. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

There are rumors she dressed as a male soldier, but her usual ruse was to pretend she was the sister of a missing Confederate soldier. The ploy allowed her access to Confederate camps, where she was able to assess their plans and supplies, which she committed to memory.

The Tullahoma Campaign

The apex of Pauline Cushman’s spy career came toward the start of the Tullahoma Campaign in 1863. She was sent to Nashville by Col. William Truesdail, under the command of Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, to gather intel that would aid Union forces in gaining control of Tennessee.

Under the guise of trying to locate her brother, Pauline gained access to the Confederate camps. When she came across a young soldier with fortification plans, she took the risk of stealing them and bringing them back to the Union camp. On the way back, she was captured. While she managed to escape, she was once again caught and put on trial for espionage. Her sentence was death by hanging.

Portrait of William Rosecrans
Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans. (Photo Credit: Samuel Woodson Price / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Rumor has it that Pauline managed to evade this sentence by exaggerating the effects of typhoid fever, while others say she wasn’t sick at all and was simply acting the part. However she managed it, she was able to postpone her execution long enough for Union forces to rescue her during their invasion of the area. She’d seemingly been left behind during the Confederates’ retreat.

Pauline Cushman’s work as a Union spy is honored

Pauline was granted the rank of brevet major by Gen. James A. Garfield and, by some reports, President Lincoln. She was given the name of “Miss Major Pauline Cushman” and presented by the Union Ladies of Nashville with her own military uniform, which she wore during her travels across the Union.

Portrait of Pauline Cushman
Pauline Cushman. (Photo Credit: Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Pauline Cushman became a household name and, in 1864, teamed up with American showman P.T. Barnum for her very own one-woman stage show, Spy of the Cumberland. She was billed as being “the greatest heroine of the age.” Her friend, Ferdinand Sarmiento, further grew her popularity by publishing an exaggerated biography, titled The Life of Pauline Cushman: The Celebrated Union Spy and Scout.

America begins to rebuild itself

As the country worked to restore itself, Pauline Cushman found her newfound fame dwindling. She moved to California to restart her acting career and met Jere Fryer. They moved to the Arizona Territory, but their time together was short-lived, as they split after the death of their daughter, Emma.

Pauline returned to California and fell into a life of poverty. Living in a boardinghouse in San Francisco, she made money by selling poetry and petitioning the government for access to Charles’ war pension. Her health began to suffer around this time, as she developed rheumatism and arthritis, and she fell into drug addiction while trying to manage her symptoms.

Pauline Cushman's gravestone at San Francisco National Cemetery
Pauline Cushman’s gravestone at San Francisco National Cemetery. (Photo Credit: Aurinia / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

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On December 2, 1893, Pauline died after overdosing on morphine. Her death was ruled accidental by a coroner’s inquest. Plans were made to bury her in a potter’s field, but veterans groups raised money for a proper funeral. She was buried in the Officer’s Circle at San Francisco National Cemetery, her tombstone reading, “Pauline C. Fryer Union Spy.”

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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