Pauline Cushman stood before Confederate General Forrest. She had just been caught spying and things did not look good.
"I have no time now, Forrest told her, to investigate your case. It is a complicated and difficult one. I will, therefore, send you to General Bragg's headquarters, at Shelbyville, and if you should be so fortunate as to prove your loyalty to the South, you may always depend upon General Forrest for protection. But this, I am sorry to say, I do not believe possible, and therefore say, prepare for the worst, for hanging is not pleasant."
It certainly wasn’t, but spying was probably the most pleasant thing Pauline Cushman ever did. She was born Harriet Wood in 1833, in New Orleans, and when her father’s business failed, he moved the family to western Michigan, still very much the frontier. It must have been quite a change for Harriet, and not a good one because, at 17, she packed her bag, changed her name to Pauline Cushman, and headed to New York to become an actress.
Pauline found work easily, but when she was offered an acting job in New Orleans, she quickly abandoned New York for the city of her birth. Almost 20, she met and married Charles Dickinson, a musician, who promptly took her home to mother in Cleveland, Ohio. The couple lived there until Pauline gave birth to a son, and they finally found their own place. Pauline had a second child, a daughter this time, and life went on. Until the Civil War began.
Charles joined the 41st Ohio Infantry band. A year later, he was stricken with chronic diarrhea. By the time he was discharged and sent home, he was so emaciated, Pauline hardly recognized him.
"When my husband came home from the Army, he was in very poor health, in fact a complete wreck...I had two small children to take care of and was unable to take care of both them and him and as his father had a very large house with plenty of room and he had two brothers and three sisters at home beside his father and mother, he went there to be taken care of... I heard his condition every day and frequently saw him. We never expected him to get any better but regarded him beyond the hope of recovery."
As expected, Charles died. Pauline had to support her children, and the only thing she knew how to do was act, so she left her children with her sister-in-law and returned to the stage. In no time at all, she was performing again, this time in Louisville, Kentucky.
Kentucky was a border state held by the Union, but it had many Confederate sympathizers. One day, a couple of Confederate prisoners on parole approached her and offered her $300 if she would toast Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy on stage. Pauline was loyal to the Union and immediately went to the Provost Marshall and told him about the offer. He questioned Pauline and, feeling she could be trusted, made her an offer of his own. How would she like to be a spy?
The next night during the play, Pauline raised a glass and, instead of saying her lines, she turned to the audience.
“Here’s to Jefferson Davis and the Southern Confederacy. May the South always maintain her honor and her rights.”
The crowd was shocked into silence, Unionists and Confederates alike. Pauline was fired, arrested, then immediately sent into the arms of the awaiting Confederates who welcomed her eagerly. Once there, she proceeded to be a charming, flirtatious woman, and she soon knew where the Confederates were getting their information and supplies.
Pauline continued to gather information as she made her way from camp to camp on the pretense of looking for her missing brother. (It seems she had six or seven brothers, and some accounts say one of them really was an officer in the Confederate army. Other accounts say it was a made up story.) Eventually, she came to the attention of Colonel Truesdail, Chief of the Union Army Police in Nashville. He wanted her to infiltrate the enemy camps in Tennessee and learn about their defenses. He warned her that it would be dangerous, and if she were caught, she could be hanged. He advised her to never write anything down, never steal papers, and never make drawings. The key to success was to commit everything to memory.
Pauline was an actress. Memorizing was what she did. She swore an oath on the Bible, kissed the American flag, and with much ado, allowed the Yankees to throw her out of camp for being a rebel sympathizer.
Pauline made her way south and soon found herself a welcome guest in Confederate territory. Southern officers escorted her from one camp to another as she searched for her long, lost brother and gathered all kinds of information. But then Pauline did what she was specifically told not to do. She made drawings of rebel defense works and stole a map from an officer’s desk. She hid the papers beneath the sole lining of her boot. As she absconded with her treasure, the map was missed, she was suspected and, before she got very far, she was apprehended. She managed to escape, but just before she was about to reach Union territory, she was recaptured and searched. The papers were found.
Pauline denied she was a spy, and used all her charms and acting skills on General Braxton Bragg during questioning, but he didn’t believe a word she said. She was tried and, for ten days, awaited the news of her fate. The stress was so bad, she began to get ill, and she used the real illness to make herself seem even worse.
Then the verdict came. She had been found guilty and would be hanged.
But this was the south, probably the last place on earth where chivalry existed. And strange as it seems to me, the Confederates were not willing to send her to the gallows. Not because she was a woman, but because she was a sick
woman. As soon as she was recovered, she would be hanged posthaste.
Pauline continued to make her illness seem worse than it was and, fortunately, battle conditions forced the Confederates to move on. Nobody wanted to drag a sick prisoner along with them, so they left Pauline behind in the hands of a local doctor, with orders to hang her as soon as she recovered. Luckily, she was rescued by General William Rosecrans of the Union army. Pauline always believed the Confederate doctor had seen through her acting and said she was too sick to travel because he didn’t want to see her hang.
With her cover blown, Pauline was sent north where she was hailed as a hero. She was commended by President Lincoln and made an honorary major. But she was never the same again. It’s said she suffered from melancholy and would often break out in tears. Perhaps it was the trauma of having been so close to death, or the memories of the awful things she must have seen during the war. Maybe things happened to her as a spy that she never, ever talked about. Or perhaps it was that her children had died while she was away. (The number of children she had, and the years of their deaths vary, but it seems they died of diptheria.) Perhaps it was all of that together.
For a while, she traveled with P. T. Barnum. She dressed in uniforms both blue and gray, and told about her adventures. She married a second time and was a widow a year later, and then married a third time to Jeremiah Fryer, an Arizona sheriff. They adopted a daughter and kept a small hotel and livery stable, but eleven years later, the daughter had died and they were separated.
In the end, she lived in the corner of a seamtress’ shop where she did some se
wing to earn her keep. She had developed rheumatism and was said to take opium to relieve the pain. On December 2, 1893, she was found dead by her landlady. She died from an overdose of opium. Some people say it was intentional.
It seemed everyone had forgotten Pauline Cushman. Everyone but the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. They buried her in the Officers’ Circle at the Presidio National Cemetery in San Francisco with all the pomp and ceremony due a hero of war. Her gravestone reads Pauline C. Fryer, Union Spy.