Cushman, Pauline (1833–1893)
Cushman, Pauline (1833–1893)
American actress who won fame as a Union spy in the Civil War. Name variations: Major Pauline Cushman; Pauline Cushman Fryer. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 10, 1833; died in poverty in San Francisco, California, on December 7, 1893; her father was a dry goods merchant from Spain; her mother was from France (both immigrated to U.S. in 1830s); married Charles Dickinson, in the late 1850s (died 1861); married Jere Fryer, in 1879 (divorced 1888); children: (first marriage) two, both died young.
Began stage career at 18 (1851); volunteered as Union spy (1861–63); recounted her spy story in concert halls and on vaudeville stages (1870s); ran hotels in San Francisco and Casa Grande, Arizona (1880s); granted the honorary title of "Major of Cavalry" by the Union army for her work as a spy.
On a sweltering June afternoon in 1863, Pauline Cushman lay prostrate in a tent, surrounded by armed guards of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. She was feverish, exhausted, and suffering from the terrible heat. Far worse, she knew that as soon as her health recovered, her only reward would be death by military execution. Cushman, a beautiful young actress, had once proclaimed herself a loyal friend of the Southern rebellion. But a Confederate military
court had concluded that she was actually a Union spy. Confederate detectives caught her trying to carry sensitive military documents over to the Union lines. Convicted of this crime against the Confederacy, Cushman had been sentenced to hang.
But that afternoon the rebel camp suddenly broke into wild confusion. Union troops, led by General Rosencrans, were approaching, and the Confederates were thrown into retreat. In the midst of this panic, the prisoner was forgotten by all of her captors, save one. A gallant young captain came to Cushman's bedside and told her that she would be left behind and that her life would thus be spared. He went on to confess that he was in love with her and promised to find her once the war was over.
When the Union troops arrived, they were greeted by the still feeble but jubilant woman who would soon be hailed across the North as "the spy of the Cumberlands." Just like the Confederate captain, these soldiers fell in love with her, particularly after they learned the story of her daring acts of espionage and her flirtation with death. Union officers regaled her with candy and flowers, and two generals carried her to the ambulance that brought her safely behind Union lines. Still confined to her bed, Cushman was visited by a parade of admiring officers and local dignitaries. Among them was Brigadier General James Garfield, the future president, who took a particular interest in Cushman's heroics and granted her the honorary title of "Major of the Cavalry."
Pauline Cushman was so much the perfect woman spy of melodrama that some of her doings seem amusingly improbable. But if all the doubtful incidents of her great adventure are discarded, her story is still a startling one.
The dramatic story of the cavalry's rescue of "Miss Major Cushman" soon became well known to the American public, told to them most often by Cushman herself. For years after the war, she recounted the event in concert halls and on vaudeville stages, thrilling audiences with a tale that sparkled with ingenious disguises, daring chases, passionate but chaste love scenes, and her last minute redemption from the jaws of death. With each incident punctuated by Cushman's commanding stage presence, many in the audience found this true story more incredible than any fictional melodrama.
Pauline Cushman's recent biographers all agree that her story is a very good one; in fact, they find the legend of the alluring actress turned daredevil spy a bit too good, too romantic and dramatic, to be entirely believed. These skeptics look beyond the tale and take a more objective look at the teller. Throughout her life, they remind us, Pauline Cushman made her living through the art of deception, first as an actress, then as a spy, and finally as a self-publicist. She was such a master of disguise, in fact, that most who have explored her story finally conclude that the line between truth and legend is almost impossible to discern. "A story like hers is a research worker's nightmare," historian Agatha Young has complained, "for the whole story is bestrewn with falsehoods, errors and half truths."
One point on which all of Pauline Cushman's chroniclers agree is that she was a striking woman. She was born in New Orleans in 1833, the daughter of a Spanish father and a French mother who eloped and then immigrated to America. To American eyes, this "creole" blood gave her an exotic look. The faded daguerreotypes that have survived show a dark-complexioned woman with long black curls, a striking figure posed dramatically before the camera's eye.
Cushman's natural beauty was tempered by strength, both physical and emotional. When she was ten years old, her father went bankrupt, after making some reckless speculations in the cotton trade. Like many American families in the 19th century, the Cushmans tried to recoup their fortune by striking out for the frontier, the land of fresh starts. In this case, the frontier was Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Cushman's father opened a trading post, doing most of his business with Native Americans. Growing up in this rustic environment, Cushman became an expert rider, learned to handle a gun and a canoe with ease, and developed the bodily strength and spirit of self-reliance that would someday help her survive several dangerous ordeals.
As legend has it, all of the young Indian braves in her community fell in love with the beautiful creole maiden. Supposedly, one even proposed, only to be told by her that "the Indian and the pale face cannot mingle!" At age 18, Cushman felt drawn back to the white man's civilization, particularly to the glamour of the stage. Traveling to New York, she soon caught the eye of theater managers and moved quickly from bit parts to leading roles in popular shows. Now a star attraction, she enjoyed a triumphant return to her hometown of New Orleans. "Her form is perfect," one writer rhapsodized, "so perfect that the sculptor's imagination would fail to add a single point, or banish a single blemish." Theater critics wrote far more about her "form" than they did about her acting ability, but Cushman evidently had remarkable charisma on stage and was always a favorite with her audiences.
While her career was flourishing in the late 1850s, her personal life was marked by tragedy. She married Charles Dickinson, a musician and actor. The couple had two children who both died of disease at a young age. Her husband would follow not long after. Volunteering for the Union army, he died of "camp fever" only a few months into the war.
Two years later, in 1863, Cushman was performing in Louisville, Kentucky, when she stumbled on her opportunity to enlist in the Union cause. Louisville was controlled by Union troops, but they struggled to maintain order in a city with many Southern sympathizers. A couple of these Southerners—paroled Confederate officers—mistakenly assumed that the famed actress from New Orleans was on their side, and they approached her with a proposition. At the time, she was starring in a play that ended each night with a rousing toast to the Union cause. They agreed to pay her a large sum—accounts vary from $300 to $3,000—to give that toast to the Confederacy instead.
A few days later, Cushman agreed to go through with the plan. Rumors spread along Louisville's Confederate grapevine that something exciting would happen at the theater that evening. The house was packed with friends of the South, and, as the play progressed, sporadic bouts of violence broke out between them and the Unionists in the audience. At last, in the play's grand finale, Cushman raised her glass and declared, "Here's to Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy! May the South always maintain her honor and her rights!" Before she had time to drink down the toast, the theater broke into battle, with Confederates leading the charge.
Caught up in this frenzy of fist fighting, chair throwing, and rebel yelling, these Southern sympathizers did not realize that they were being watched, their names recorded by Union intelligence officers stationed in the audience. They could not have known that, when the Confederate officers had first asked Cushman to make the toast, she had gone straight to a Union officer, Colonel Moore. Moore advised her to go ahead with the toast, as a way for his police force to uncover those disloyal to the Union. The toast that marked Cushman as a Southern loyalist was, in fact, her first act of deception as a Union spy.
Outraged by the destruction of his theater as well as by Cushman's secessionist sentiments, the manager fired her on the spot. But this only made her a more valuable employee of the Union army. To all appearances, she was a proud and defiant martyr who lost her job defending Confederate honor. Colonel Moore advised her to keep playing this role on the public "stage" of Louisville's streets, and she apparently did so quite convincingly. Before long she was surrounded by dozens of underground Confederates, all anxious to express their admiration and give her their support. At the same time, they gave her a surfeit of valuable information about smuggling, spy rings, and other covert operations, stories that Cushman promptly reported to Union officers.
Notoriety is often an asset for a stage performer, and Cushman soon got a new job offer from a stage manager in Nashville who was anxious to cash in on the actress' recent scandal. Since Nashville was much closer to enemy lines and had an even larger population of Confederates, the army encouraged her to take the job and resume her spying operations. On stage in Nashville, Cushman was a sensation, while offstage she continued to play the role of a friend of the Southern rebellion, all the while passing valuable information to the Union's Colonel Truesdail, chief of espionage for the Army of the Cumberland.
Then Truesdail asked Cushman to consider "an undertaking of unusual and extreme danger." With spring approaching, General Rosencrans, head of the Union's Army of the Cumberland, was preparing to move southward, taking the offensive against the Confederate General Braxton Bragg's smaller force. But Rosencrans did not know exactly where Bragg was, how many men he had, and how well-fortified and supplied they were. He desperately needed more information, and Truesdail thought that Cushman was the one who could get it.
His plan was to send her into enemy territory. This would be easy, since Southern sympathizers were regularly rounded up and "expelled" from the Union side. Once among the Confederates, she was to play the role of a worried sister, searching for her brother among their soldiers. Cushman really did have a brother in the Southern army, so she would find the part easy to play. Using this pretext, Truesdail wanted her to ingratiate herself with the Southern officers and then survey as many fortifications and army camps as she could. He warned her that she should not write anything down, but make a mental note of all that she saw.
This was a far more daring and sophisticated mission than any Cushman had done before, but, inspired by patriotism, she readily accepted. Armed only with her good looks, her acting ability, and a six-shooter, she allowed the Union army to "expel" her into enemy territory. There, in the no-man's land along the military border, she met a disreputable smuggler who agreed, for the price of her fine horse, to take her to the Confederate camp in Columbia, Tennessee.
Cushman took a room in the hotel there and, just as Truesdail had expected, soon enjoyed the attentions of a host of gallant Confederate officers. Inspired by her physical attractions, her sad story about a lost brother, and her reputation as a friend of the South, these men soon lined up for a chance to brag about their military accomplishments and their plans, providing much useful information to their charming new companion. Though they regretted her departure, one officer provided her with a "letter of safeguard" that allowed her to pass on to Shelbyville, the site of General Bragg's headquarters.
There she befriended an engineering captain who helped to design Confederate forts. Cushman feigned disinterest in the subject, but when the man left his office to run an errand she snatched some blueprints from his table. Ignoring Truesdail's advice, she hid them in the lining of a spare pair of shoes, along with some drawings she had made of forts and camps she had seen. Though this would eventually be her downfall, all was going according to plan. She traveled freely from camp to camp, guided everywhere by infatuated officers. One quartermaster even had a Confederate uniform specially tailored for her and tried to convince her to work as his special aide. She played her part beautifully and was apparently thriving in what Agatha Young has called a "dream world of romantic adventure."
But the dream turned into a nightmare when the time came for her to return to the Union lines with all the information she had gathered. Locating the smuggler who had carried her South, she asked him to take her to Nashville, explaining that she needed to retrieve some dresses. But he grew suspicious and, perhaps hoping for a reward, turned her over to a Confederate agent who soon discovered the documents that she had artlessly concealed in her shoes. What the agent did not discover was her revolver, still hidden on her person. As he brought her into custody, Cushman had the opportunity to shoot him and perhaps escape north. But she could not pull the trigger, could not cross the line from acting into true warfare.
Her situation looked bleak as she was passed from one guard to another on her way to a military trial. After a desperate and almost successful escape attempt, she was brought before General Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the most formidable and uncharmable men in the Confederacy. Forrest tried to scare her, then passed her on to General Bragg himself. The evidence against Cushman was clear, and the guilty verdict came swiftly. Legend suggests that a "light-hearted heroine" took the sentence of death in stride, bantering with Bragg: "Come, now, general, I don't think I'll be either useful nor ornamental dangling at the end of a rope." The same aura of melodramatic fantasy abounds with stories that her guards fell in love with her, that they fanned her to keep her cool, and that she enjoyed regular visits from generals Bragg and Forrest while awaiting her execution. Historians, who doubt that the execution order would have been carried out against a woman, turn a cold eye on these romantic scenes and suggest that Cushman was deeply unnerved by the prospect of hanging. Exhausted by the mental and physical strain, she seemed to suffer a nervous breakdown that confined her to her tent until she was rescued by the Union advance weeks later.
Pauline Cushman's spying days were over, and, after a slow recovery from nervous exhaustion, she returned to the safer and more glamorous world of the theater. Decked out in a military uniform, the "major" recalled her "startling adventures" before eager audiences in places such as P.T. Barnum's famed American Museum. Cushman was still a stunning presence on stage. One of her admirers remembered her as "a woman of magnificent physique, with large, lustrous, slow black eyes, raven ringlets falling almost to her waist, with the profile of a Madonna and a voice as melodious as a lute." Cushman was almost as much of a sensation offstage. She once publicly horsewhipped a man for spreading false rumors about her sex life; another time, she smashed plates on the head of a particularly annoying suitor.
Eventually, American audiences grew tired of Civil War stories. Cushman tried running her own theater company and then went into the hotel business in San Francisco. In 1879, she married a younger man named Jere Fryer, and the couple opened a hotel in the frontier boomtown of Casa Grande, Arizona. There she embarked on another round of larger-than-life adventures, mediating gun battles on the town's main street, wielding a pistol to keep order in her saloon, and developing a reputation among the ranchers, homesteaders, and cowboys for being a generous host most of the time, and a formidable enemy when crossed.
Fryer turned out to be an unfaithful husband. Supposedly, when Cushman confronted one of her romantic rivals, the two ended up in a knock down fistfight in a mule corral. Cushman lost badly, suffering two black eyes. A few years later, she lost her husband as well. She returned to San Francisco and tried in vain to make a comeback on the stage. But her beauty and her fortune were gone, and there was no longer a flock of admirers around her. She was also suffering from terrible bouts of arthritis, made worse by the fact that she now had to make a meager living scrubbing floors. The landlady in the boardinghouse where she lived found her dead on December 7, 1893, killed by an accidental overdose of morphine, taken to relieve her arthritic pain.
Pauline Cushman seemed destined for an unmarked pauper's grave until the landlady alerted a local veterans' group. The aging soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic remembered the daring exploits of the "spy of the Cumberlands" and honored her with a full military funeral.
Horan, James D. Desperate Women. NY: Putnam, 1952.
Huddleston, Ed. The Civil War in Middle Tennessee. Nashville, TN: Parthenon Press, 1965.
Kane, Harnett T. Spies for the Blue and Gray. NY: Hanover House, 1954.
Moore, Frank. Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice. Hartford, CT: S.S. Scranton, 1866.
Sarmiento, F.L. Pauline Cushman, Union Spy and Scout. NY: John E. Potter, 1865.
Young, Agatha. The Women and the Crisis: Women of the North in the Civil War. NY: McDowell, Obolensky, 1959.
Ernest Freeberg , historian, Atlanta, Georgia