Pauline Cushman

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Pauline Cushman

Born June 10, 1833
New Orleans, Louisiana
Died December 2, 1893
San Francisco, California

Stage actress who served as a Union spy

Pauline Cushman used her skills as an actress to pretend that she supported the Confederate cause during the Civil War. In reality, she collected information about Confederate spies and strategies and passed it along to Union authorities. In 1863, Cushman was captured and sentenced to death by Confederate general Braxton Bragg (1817–1876; see entry). If the sentence had been carried out, she would have been the only female spy executed by either side during the war. But Union troops arrived in Shelbyville, Tennessee, in time to save her.

Decides to serve her country

Pauline Cushman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1833. Her name was originally Harriet Wood, but she changed it when she decided to become an actress. Cushman lived in Michigan for awhile, then moved to New York to look for jobs in the theater. When she had trouble launching her acting career in New York, she returned to New Orleans, got married, and started a family. Sadly, her children died as babies, and her husband died shortly after the start of the Civil War.

The war grew out of a steady increase in tension between the Northern and Southern regions of the United States. The two sides had disagreed on a number of issues for many years, including whether to allow slavery. By 1861, this ongoing dispute had convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States and attempt to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Northern political leaders were determined to fight to keep the Southern states in the Union.

Even though Cushman had been born in the South, she remained loyal to the Union. Figuring that she had no family ties anymore, she decided to serve her country as a spy. Her first assignment was in St. Louis, Missouri. While she appeared on stage as an actress, she also used her charm and good looks to uncover Confederate spies and their means of communication with Confederate leaders.

Acts like a Confederate sympathizer

Cushman's next assignment was in Nashville, Tennessee. Union forces controlled this area, but it was still full of people who supported the Confederate cause. At one point, a Confederate sympathizer offered the actress $300 to propose a toast to Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry) on stage. Cushman consulted with Union officials about it, then accepted the offer. After she made the toast, she was fired from her job with the theater company and thrown out of the Union as a Confederate sympathizer. But since she had publicly proclaimed her support for the Confederacy, many people were willing to believe that she was a loyal Southerner.

Cushman created a cover story—that she was looking for her brother, a Confederate officer—and used it to go behind Confederate lines. She attracted the interest of several Confederate officers, who invited her to accompany them to their army camps. In this way, Cushman gathered a great deal of valuable information for the Union Army.

In May 1863, Cushman passed information about the strength and location of Confederate troops in Tennessee to Union general William Rosecrans (1819–1898). But Confederate general Braxton Bragg became suspicious of her activities and held her for questioning. Cushman panicked and tried unsuccessfully to escape. When Bragg's forces recaptured Cushman, they discovered her secret notes that proved she was a Union spy. Tired of dealing with spies, Bragg sentenced her to death by hanging.

Escapes a death sentence

For some reason, Bragg's order to execute Cushman was not carried out immediately. Some sources say that she was ill, and the hanging was delayed until she recovered her health. Other sources say that a Union raid caused chaos in the Confederate camp and caused the soldiers to forget about the order. At any rate, Confederate forces evacuated the area a short time later and left Cushman behind. Union troops rescued her near Shelbyville, Tennessee.

News of Cushman's death sentence and dramatic rescue soon spread across the country. After all, she almost became the first female spy to be executed by either side in the Civil War. But all the attention meant that Cushman could not serve as a Union spy anymore. She was too well known. The Union Army made her an honorary major in recognition of her service. For the remainder of the war, she helped the Union cause by advising the army on the geographic terrain of Tennessee, which she had come to know well (good maps were difficult to find at that time).

Meets a tragic end

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Cushman returned to her acting career. She was proud of her successful wartime service—she liked to be introduced in the theater as "Major Cushman"—but did not talk about her spy activities on the stage. Her days as an actress gradually came to an end, and she was largely forgotten by the American people. The U.S. government even refused to give her a military pension for her service to the country.

Toward the end of her life, Cushman worked as a dressmaker's assistant and a cleaning woman in order to make ends meet. She also became addicted to drugs. Cushman committed suicide in San Francisco, California, in 1893 (some sources say 1894). Reversing its earlier policy, the government gave her a full military funeral and buried her in a veterans' cemetery. Cushman is remembered as one of the more glamorous yet effective Union spies of the Civil War. She was brave and daring, yet always conducted her activities in a quiet, professional manner.

Where to Learn More

Axelrod, Alan. The War Between the Spies: AHistory of Espionage During the American Civil War. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992.

Markle, Donald E. Spies and Spymasters of theCivil War. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994.

Sarmiento, F. L. Life of Pauline Cushman. Philadelphia: J. E. Potter, 1865.

Female Spies in the Civil War

Women acted as spies for both the North and the South during the Civil War. Like the men who fought as soldiers, they risked their lives in order to serve their country. Female spies from both sides had a strong belief in the Union or Confederate cause. This belief made them want to contribute to the war effort. But roles for women were extremely limited in those days. Women were not allowed to serve as soldiers, so nursing and spying were their main choices for wartime activities.

Traditional attitudes had limited women to roles as mothers and homemakers before the Civil War. Many American men tended to think of women as delicate, refined ladies. Such attitudes actually helped some female spies. They were sometimes able to avoid detection because men could not believe women were smart enough or devious enough to serve as spies. Some men thought women were not capable of understanding anything of a technical or strategic nature. As a result, these men spoke freely about military matters in the presence of women. Female spies used this situation to their advantage and relayed the information to their side.