Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Pauline Cushman -- Union Spy

She was born Harriet Wood in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 10th, 1833. By the late 1830s, her family left Louisiana for Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was there that they established a Native American Trading Post. And it was there, where young Harriet and her seven brothers grew up learning the skills needed to survive in the Northern frontier.

While it's said she was a "tomboy," it's also said that she dreamed of a glamorous life as an actress. By the time she was 18 years old, she left her family for a career on the stages of New York City. It was there that she learned how New York City can be an unkind place for anyone on their own. And yes, it was there while trying to make it in show business, as with many others throughout the ages in that line of work, that she found that her real name didn't have enough appeal. That's when Harriet Wood changed her name to Pauline Cushman.

Though she learned that she couldn’t find work in New York, she was hired by a theater manager who was based in New Orleans. As you'll recall, it was the city of her birth. New Orleans is said to have been a much kinder place than New York City, but then again just about anywhere has always been nicer than New York City. It was in New Orleans that she became well-known for her "full-figure and seductive charms" on and off the stage. It was also in New Orleans where she met and married Charles Dickinson who was a music teacher and theater musician.

As for their marriage, all in all, it was short-lived. Soon after getting married, the couple moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to be closer to his family. There they had two children. Sadly, both died in infancy. Then, when the Civil War started, her husband Charles enlisted in the Union Army. Some say he was in the infantry while other sources say he was a unit musician. Either way, he didn't make it home.

While folks might think it was gunshots and cannons that killed the most soldiers in the Civil War, it's a fact that dysentery was the single greatest killer of Civil War soldiers on both sides. And no, it wasn't simply a case of diarrhea. Dysentery differed from common diarrhea because dysentery was caused by a bacterial infection that gave soldiers loose and bloody bowels. Her husband Charles died of dysentery in 1862.

On her own again, she returned to the stage. By 1863, Pauline Cushman Dickinson dropped her widowed name of Dickinson and simply went by her stage name Pauline Cushman. In April of that year, she was performing on stage in Louisville, Kentucky. She had a leading part in the play The Seven Sisters at a theater that was frequented by all -- including Confederate sympathizers. 

Louisville, Kentucky, in 1863 was like a pressure cooker. While Union troops were in control of the city, the place was filled with paroled Confederate prisoners of war. There is a legend about how two paroled Confederate officers approached Pauline one day and asked her to make a toast to the Confederacy during the performance. They knew that she gave a dinner toast during one scene of the play. They wanted her to change the script and dedicate the toast to the Confederacy. They even offered her $300 to do it.

Pauline Cushman was not a dumb actress by any means and knew she needed to let someone know about what she was being asked to do. She knew full well that something like that could ignite things in the already tense city. Knowing this, she went directly to Colonel Orlando Hurley Moore for his advice. Col. Moore was the U.S. Provost Marshal in Louisville. 

After explaining what was asked of her, the amount of money that she was offered to do it, and her fears of what would happen if she did it, Moore told her to accept the proposition and report back to his office the next day. His response surprised her. In fact, she was extremely surprised that Col. Moore wanted her to go along with the plan and she had no idea why the Colonel told her to do it. 

During that night's performance, when the toast scene came, Pauline stood up from the table, raised her glass, and proclaimed, "Here's to Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy; may the South always maintain her honor and her rights."

The San Francisco Call remembered the incident three decades later when it wrote, "The sentiment fell upon the audience like a bombshell. All the Union persons present were mortified and indignant, while Southern sympathizers were delighted."

Years later, the San Francisco Examiner will write, "Romances of the lovely young actress who was persecuted and driven out of the two cities by the Union soldiers filled the South, and she was the Confederate heroine of the hour." 

Among those angry at her toast was her boss, who promptly fired her after the performance. When she returned the next day to see Col. Moore, he offered her a job as a Union spy. Because of what she did on stage, she became an immediate Star for the Southern cause. Subsequently, Pauline Cushman became the perfect person to be a Union spy. This was all part of Col. Moore's plan.

As a Union Spy, Pauline Cushman used her sudden celebrity status as well as her acting skills to pose as a Confederate sympathizer in order to gain information. She once posed as a Southern woman in a boarding house where she was able to stop the poisoning of Union Army officers. The boardinghouse's mistress revealed to Pauline that she bought powdered poison to sprinkle on the Union officers' food and drink. It was because of Pauline Cushman that those Union officers' lives were saved. The officers were assigned to a different boardinghouse. As for the boardinghouse mistress who wanted to poison them, she was arrested.

There is a story about how Pauline Cushman dressed as a man was able to infiltrate a Confederate ring of smugglers. In fact, it's said that she actually convinced a Southern sympathizer that she was an undercover Confederate official en route from Canada to Richmond with important, time-sensitive information. The Southern sympathizer was a woman who was supposed to smuggle supplies and important documents to the Southern underground working in that area. Cushman was able to notify Col. Moore and Union forces had the woman and her associates arrested. The documents and supplies that the woman was smuggling were confiscated.

As for her biggest mission, by the summer of 1863, Pauline Cushman was sent to Nashville, Tennessee. She was placed under the command of Union Army Gen. William Rosecrans. She was assigned to gather intelligence in the way of Confederate troop movements, the size of the Confederate forces, how well were they supplied, and if they were building any fortifications. To do that, she was ordered to gain access to Confederate camps in Tennessee to get that information. Gen. Rosecrans needed that information before launching his Tullahoma Campaign, also known as the Middle Tennessee Campaign, which took place in June and July of 1863. 

She devised a plan to infiltrate the Southern lines. She figured that Confederates would allow her free passage if they believed she was simply a sister looking for her lost brother. So under the guise of a Southern woman "searching for a lost brother," she entered the Confederate camps. For the next few months, she was one of the Union’s most productive spies. Using the ruse was pretending to be the sister of a missing Confederate soldier, she used her sob story to sneak into Confederate camps to assess their strength, supplies, and obtain their plans. It is said that she drew maps from memory and coaxed Confederate soldiers into giving her intel.

At one point during her mission, it's said she was faced with a dilemma that almost got her hanged as a spy. While in a camp, she came upon a Confederate officer drawing up fortification plans. She immediately knew that those plans needed to get back to Gen. Rosecrans. So now, she was faced with the dilemma of following through with her mission to get as much intelligence as possible from other camps -- or to try to steal those plans and get them back to the Union lines. 

She chooses to steal the plans. And while in the process of doing so, she is captured by Confederate soldiers and arrested for being a Union spy. She escaped from where she was being held but was recaptured and tried for espionage. She was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. During this time, believe it or not, she was diagnosed with contracting typhoid fever. Or at least that's what the Confederate doctors believed.

Years later, Pauline Cushman would tell the story of how she knew that she needed to buy some time knowing that Gen. Rosecrans Army was on the way. To do so, she said she mustered all her acting skills to fake an illness so severe that her captors would delay her execution. And believe it or not, the ruse worked and the Confederates made the decision not to hang her until after she gets well enough to hang. 

About that time, Union Gen. Rosecrans launched his Tullahoma Campaign. As for Pauline Cushman, she is left behind in Shelbyville, Tennessee, as the Confederates retreat from that city. The Union Army enters the city and finds that the Confederates left Pauline Cushman behind because she was "too ill to be moved" -- even though they were going to hang her when she got well. 

Union spy Pauline Cushman made a surprisingly sudden recovery. And while in Nashville, the Union Army received a telegram from President Lincoln bestowing on her an honorary commission of Major for her work and risking her life for the Union. It was said her exploits made it all the way to Abraham Lincoln himself, who allegedly remarked, "She has done more to earn her title than many a male who wore the shoulder straps of Major during the war." After that, she became known as Miss "Major" Cushman. 

During that same time, the Union Ladies of Nashville presented her with a Union Major's Army uniform and a sword. It is said that she wore her uniform complete with a sword as she traveled throughout the Union. She left the Army soon after being outed as a spy and later performed a one-woman show for P.T. Barnum about her espionage exploits. It was billed as The Spy of the Cumberland and The Greatest Heroine of the Age.

Writer Ferdinand Sarmiento, who later became a friend of hers, interviewed her at length to write her biography titled Life of Pauline Cushman: The Celebrated Union Spy and Scout. 

The biography of Pauline Cushman was written in 1865 by Ferdinand Sarmiento using her notes and recollections. While many consider the book exaggerated, it's not much different than books written about others at the time or later. Like books written about Wild Bill, John Wesly Hardin, and Wyatt Earp, the book about Pauline Cushman has all sorts of exploits that are unprovable. 

But, unlike the exaggerated exploits of Wild Bill, John Wesly Hardin, and Wyatt Earp, the book about Pauline Cushman's exploits, and the nature of the secret work she was doing on behalf of the Union, can't help but make someone wonder if they were exaggerated. After all, it's one thing to make false claims that can be proven false, like Wild Bill's false claim about taking on a non-existent gang of outlaws, and Hardin's lie about how he out-drew a famous marshal, or like Wyatt Earp's many false claims, versus the tales of a Union Army spy who lacks corroboration simply as a matter of the nature of that profession. 

In the early 1870s, Pauline Cushman moved to San Francisco. In 1872, she married again. And again, her husband whose name is lost to history died. Then a few years later in 1877, she met and married Jere Fryer in Casa Grande, Arizona Territory. The marriage lasted almost 13 years before they separated in 1890. After that, she returned to San Francisco. As Pauline Cushman Fryer, she moved into a small, third-floor room in a boarding house at 1118 Market Street.

She made a little cash by selling poetry and giving interviews to whoever wanted to listen. Her arthritis was so bad that most of that money that she made went toward buying painkillers. It was later reported that she didn't have enough money for food. In April 1893, after 30 years of petitioning the U.S. government, the government awarded Pauline Cashman with her first husband's small Army pension. 

It's said that long-term pain and poverty beat her down. Then on the morning of December 2nd, 1893, her landlady went into Pauline's room to wake her and found Pauline unconscious in bed. Because she was still breathing, two doctors were brought in -- but nothing could be done for her. 

Major Pauline Cushman, a Civil War hero, died at 2 p.m. It's said that she died of a morphine overdose after three years of living from hand to mouth, three years of battling chronic rheumatism and arthritis pain. The painkillers that she took to alleviate her pain, killed her. An inquest ruled the death an accidental overdose. 

On December 3rd, 1893, The San Francisco Call newspaper wrote the following, "A childless, gray-haired, penniless broken woman, almost without friends, died a lonely death in a Market Street lodging house yesterday."

The San Francisco Call newspaper reported that because she died destitute that she was going to be buried in one of San Francisco's potter's fields. The newspaper went on to say that she would probably be interned in an unmarked grave. 

It is said that the reports in the newspaper "horrified veterans groups" to the point where they took action and pulled together the funds to give her a proper funeral. On the day of her funeral, crowds gathered at the funeral home. Flowers were being wired in came in from across the country. There were so many flowers that it's said her flag-covered casket was almost buried under them. A long procession of mourners accompanied her to her gravesite in the Veterans Cemetery at the U.S. Army Fort in San Francisco. Yes, the Presidio. 

The San Francisco Call reported, "A salute was fired across the grave and taps were sounded by Bugler Mitchell from the Presidio, and the drama of the federal spy's life was ended."

Buried in San Francisco's Presidio is a woman who gave so much to America. Her deeds saved lives and sadly are now only forgotten tales of adventure, intrigue, and tragedy. It should be noted that in 1864, the story of Pauline Cashman made headlines across the nation. She was in reality a household name. While she was cursed by the Confederacy, she was venerated by the Union. 

Pauline Cushman Fryer died on December 2nd, 1893. The picture below is of her gravestone located in the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio. Carved in its marble are simply the words:

May God bless her, and our country not forget her.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this was good! Incredible lady, incredible deeds. She gave us a big hunk of a free Union!!!!


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