Among the exhibits on display at P. T. Barnum’s American Theatre in New York City during the summer of 1864 was an actress and patriot of the Union Army named Pauline Cushman. Billed as the “Spy of Cumberland,” the celebrated thespian was dressed in the complete uniform of an infantry man including sabre, a crimson, silk sash and a forage cap. Her hair under the cap was disheveled, shoulder-length and curly. She sported a mustache, thin, but unmistakable above her upper lip and below the lip was a dark tuft of hair. The makeup and over all look was so convincing that unless otherwise notified ticket buyers had no idea the man was really a woman.
Pauline Cushman appeared on stage in the lecture room at P. T. Barnum’s American Theatre from June 6, 1864 to July 9, 1864. She offered a patriotic presentation to more than twenty thousand people in a single month. According to the advertisement issued by P. T. Barnam about Pauline’s engagement “she was the modern American model of the renowned ‘Joan of Arc.’ ”
“Miss Pauline Cushman, the Union scout and spy, who under orders from General Rosecrans, passed through enemy lines and accomplished such wonders for the Army of the Cumberland while she was engaged in the secret service of the United States,” the July 6, 1864 edition of the Charleston Mercury read. “Every father and mother who have a son in the Union Army; every child who has learned to love its country and call on heaven to bless its present struggle and preserve its nationality, will rejoice at this opportunity of listening to “thoughts that breath and words that burn,” as they fall from the lips of this high-souled, gallant girl, who, in her determination to serve her country, risked her inestimable precious life, and was rescued from a Rebel prison, where by order of the notorious General Bragg, she lay wounded and languishing with sickness, UNDER SENTENCE OF DEATH!”
“Those who would avoid the crowd should bear in mind that the most pleasant time to hear this heroic lady recount, in her fervid language, her adventure, is at ELEVEN O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING, on which the lecture room is thrown open without any extra charge. The public’s obedient servant, P. T. Barnum.”
Pauline Cushman was born Harriet Pauline Wood on June 10, 1833, in the old French section of New Orleans, Louisiana. Her father was a Spanish businessman and political refugee; her mother, a beautiful French girl of some social prominence. When Pauline was ten years old her father moved his family to the wilderness of Michigan. It was there that the Chippewa Indian children were Pauline’s playmates. They taught her to paddle a canoe and ride a pony. They called her “Laughing Breeze” and the older women taught her how to cook and sew.
At the age of eighteen Pauline ran away from home to New York City. She soon got an audition before Thomas Placide the manager of the New Orleans Varieties theatre who was in New York recruiting performers for his company. He gave Pauline a minor role in a popular show entitled New Orleans. Pauline’s gypsy like beauty captivated audiences from the start and she went far in the entertainment world. Her name was changed to Cushman, a name she held all her life even through three marriages.
The thrill of the footlights did not satisfy the adventurous actress, however. In 1836, the Civil War was raging fiercely when Pauline arrived in Louisville, Kentucky to appear in another production of Mazeppa. As usual a throng of admirers gathered at the Wood’s Playhouse to see the well-known performer and engage her in conversation about her career. Among those at the scene were a number of paroled Rebel officers. Upon introducing themselves to Pauline they asked if she would do something for them. “They proposed at first laughingly, and then seriously, to make me a present of $300, if during my performance I would make a certain toast,” the actress remembered in the biography Life of Pauline Cushman: The Celebrated Union Spy and Scout. The Rebel soldiers wanted her to say, “Here’s to Jeff Davis and the southern Confederacy, may the south always maintain her honor and her rights.” Shocked at the proposition Pauline responded, “But good gracious, gentlemen! I should be locked up in jail if I were to attempt anything of that kind. The men repeated the request and promised to take care of everything.”
Pauline politely excused herself from the gathering and hurried to meet with Colonel Orlando Moore, a Union Provost Marshal she had been introduced to earlier in the day. After a serious conversation, Colonel Moore asked that she honor the request. “Of course,” the Colonel assured her, “I know that you would not feel it; if I were not sure of that, I should arrest you immediately; but if you are willing to serve our country, do this.”
“Willing to serve my country,” she responded sincerely, “I would die for it!”
“Die for it if need be; if not live for it,” Colonel Moore continued. “If you will only do this, you can do more real service than a regiment of men.
Before Pauline had taken the stage in early April 1863, Colonel Moore had persuaded her to enter the secret service of the Union.
According to the June 24, 1864, edition of the Janesville Weekly Gazette, the Wood’s Theatre was packed the night Pauline offered the toast to Jefferson Davis. “The incident fell upon the multitude like a thunder clap,” the Janesville Weekly Gazette article read, “confusing and mortifying all loyal persons present, and highly delighting their neighbors. This of course led to her mock arrest and dismissal from the theatre. Speedily released, she next repaired to Nashville, and while there engaged at the new theatre it was suggested to her by Colonel W. Truesdail the chief of army police to make a little excursion to the headquarters of the Confederate General Bragg. This idea fully coinciding with her own innate love of wild and dashing adventures, and an excellent pretext being availed in the fact that she had a brother in the service, she willingly undertook the expedition, after having solemnly accepted the following oath.
“I, Pauline Cushman, do solemnly swear that I will bear true allegiance and fidelity to the government of the United State of America, and that I will faithfully serve the same during the time I am employed in the service of the Army of the Cumberland, to the best of my knowledge and ability; that I will observe and obey all the instructions which may be given me; that I will in no manner or form convey or give any information to the enemies of the government of the United States which will be advantage to them, or injury to the Federal cause, so help me God.”
“The Colonel then gave her a series of very minute, solemn and impressive instructions for her guidance, and she set forth as a refugee and victim of northern tyranny.”
Nashville was a vast southern aide society with treasonous goals – aiding and passing information to the enemy. Orders had been given by General Braxton Bragg that since few people could be trusted not to be spies – no man was allowed to leave Nashville without leave or he would be put on a block and shot.
On May 27, 1863, Colonel Truesdail gave Pauline instructions to leave town with a number of other women who were southern sympathizers. Of course, Pauline was only pretending to be a southern sympathizer to gain access into Confederate headquarters in the field. Not only was she posing as a victim of the Union Army dismissed from town, but she had plans to infiltrate the Rebel lines by claiming to look for her brother who was a Rebel soldier under General Bragg. She was eventually captured by the Rebel army inside their lines and escorted to General Bragg.
On her way to be delivered to the general Rebel soldiers stopped at a hotel in Shelbyville for food and supplies. The soldiers had important plans and drawings of defense fortifications with them. Using her talent and charm Pauline managed to distract the men long enough for her to steal the important documents and smuggle them out to a female farmer and fellow spy who took the material to Colonel Truesdail.
Not only did Pauline hijack key documents but she made sketches of the fortifications, troop location and troop numbers. She transferred copies of the information to Union loyalists who got the intelligence to the appropriate people. When there was no one to take the secret dispatches or mail she acquired to Colonel Truesdial safely she stole unlisted personals clothing and dressed like a man and made her way to the area she knew the Union forces would be waiting.
The best of fortune followed Pauline during her month long adventure as a spy. Her dashing beauty had disarmed the severest of her foes. The versatile actress was ultimately able to acquire crucial reports about the size, strength, and deployment of General Bragg. Those reports revealed that General Bragg was a close military advisor to the confederal President Jefferson Davis. The information Pauline secured resulted in southern troops being outmaneuvered in the Tullahoma Campaign and the Union pushing the Rebels out of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
By the end of June 1863, good luck seemed to have deserted Pauline. She was arrested in the dead of night by Rebel scouts who suspected she might be a spy after she was seen sneaking around a Confederate picket post near Franklin. General John Hunt Morgan and three Rebel scouts tracked Pauline to a farm where she had taken refuge. She had been exploring the area to ascertain the position and strength of the Rebel troops after their retreat from Chattanooga. Pauline was searched and key documents were found hidden in a secret compartment in her shoe.
The June 24, 1864, edition of the Janesville Weekly Gazette reported that General John Hunt Morgan was a “renowned guerrilla chieftain who was more than pleased to escort Pauline to the quarters of General Nathan Bedford Forrest.” While en route to the distinguished officer, General Morgan became enthralled with Pauline’s beauty. “Johnnie manifested all the gallantry that usually distinguishes such a man in the presence of the fair and offered the beautiful Pauline all his friendship; a magnificent diamond ring and a silver mounted revolver as keepsakes and urged her to become his aide-de-camp as soon as she should be released,” the Janesville Weekly Gazette article continued.
General Forrest was not at all pleased to see Pauline in his camp. He didn’t smile when he was introduced to her, nor did he shake her hand. He was disgusted to meet a spy. He motioned for her to sit down and she complied. “I’ve been looking for spies like you for a long time, but I’ve got you now and intend to hold you,” General Forrest told Pauline. “You have been here before. You know all the roads, bride-paths and hog-paths.”
“That’s false,” Pauline responded, “I’ve never been here and would like to send a bullet through the man mean enough to make the charge.”
General Forrest gazed at her with amusement while she continued. “Well, you’re made of good fighting stuff if you’re a woman.”
“I got my visit south as a poor refugee expelled from the Union lines on account of strong southern feeling,” and she accounted most adroitly for the absence of her baggage, stating that she had been deprived of all by Colonel Truesdail. The General questioned her as to her plans for the future in the south, the position and resources of the Union army.
Pauline managed to address all of Forrest’s queries to his satisfaction. He informed her that he was going to hand her over to the Confederate Provost Marshal General Colonel McKinstry. Forrest told her that the General was a “humane and just man” who would investigate the serious charges against her and get at the truth.”
The idea of being sent to the Provost Marshal did not frighten Pauline. She maintained her strong Confederate loyalty. She was dispatched to Rebel headquarters at Shelbyville. Before she was escorted away, Johnnie Morgan offered her his good wishes.
“Goodbye! I hope we shall meet again where we can have something better than cornbread baked in ashes and rotgut whisky at fifteen dollars per quart.” Her parting song as she rode away was the well-known ballad ‘Trust in Luck.’
Once Pauline and the men guarding her made it to Shelbyville she was immediately taken to General Bragg. She sat down in a chair opposite the officer and he began to question her extensively.
“I am of French and Spanish descent,” Pauline offered.
“Where were you born,” he pressed.
“In New Orleans,” she replied.
“Your speech favors a Yankee twang.”
“Well, I’m an actress and have been playing Yankee parts so long that I suppose I’ve caught the twang.” She then went on to narrate the history of her fighting qualities from the woman she admired the most, “my own brave mother.”
“But to the point,” the General offered. “You have important papers ion in your possession and if they prove you to be a spy, nothing can save you from a little hemp.”
She carelessly replied, “Well go on and root the whole thing up, if you like.” The picking up a basket of letters he in turn said, “By sending out spies I know everything that goes on at the Yankee headquarters better than their own clerks there!”
“But if I’m found guilty,” Pauline inquired, “what will you do with me?”
“You will surely be hanged.”
“General, come now! I don’t think I’d be either useful or ornamental dangling at the end of a rope. If I must die, let me choose the method of my death.”
“I cannot promise that because you might prefer a natural mode of exit.”
“No, if I must perish, let me be shot, for that would not hurt me so much.”
“Where did you get the pistol you had in your possession when you were recaptured at Baum’s house?”
“I took it from a house where we stopped at Hillsboro. It belonged to a wounded soldier.”
“What did you intend to do with it?”
“As the scouts had left me and the Union army was reported to be near, I took it for self-defense.”
At the conclusion of the questioning Pauline was taken from General Bragg to the Provost Marshal’s office where she met Colonel Alexander McKinstry. The Colonel asked her a number of his own questions including queries about the papers and sketches found in the secret compartment in her shoe. She did not have a satisfactory answer for the papers and sketches. She was then escorted to a private house near the Duck River close to Shelbyville where she was locked in and placed under guard.
On June 26, 1863, Pauline became extremely ill with typhoid fever and wasn’t able to get out of bed for more than a week. While she was convalescing she was informed by an officer that a court martial board had been assembled and investigated her case. Colonel McKinstry delivered the news of the board’s decision. They determined that Pauline was a spy and she was sentenced to death.
She grew even more ill in the passing days. In addition to suffering from typhoid she was now overcome with worry over the idea of being hanged. According to the biography Life of Pauline Cushman: The Celebrated Union Spy and Scout, “An agony of mind, worse than all these, was what consumed her brain and wasted her fair form… Her health seemed to have received a shock from which it is probable it will never fully recover. Fits of deep depression would seize her, and great fears would steal unconsciously down her marble-like features.”
On June 28, 1863, Pauline was transported from the home where she was being held prisoner and hurried through the battle lines of Shelbyville to Nashville. She continued to struggle with poor health which kept her from being able to get around on her own. She was kept under constant watch by the Confederates during her incarceration in Nashville. She was still on her sickbed in late September 1863 when the Union army broke through enemy lines and rescued her.
Pauline returned to Louisville once her health improved. According to the December 2, 1863, edition of the Louisville Journal residents of the area were thrilled that the actress turned soldier had come back. “This distinguished lady arrived in our city yesterday,” the article boasted. “She will be heartily welcomed by her friends and her admirers in this place. The career of this lady, since she left our city, has been one of the wildest romances, and perhaps the most eventful of all heroines who have figured in this war.”
In recognition of her service and value to the Union forces President Abraham Lincoln and General James Garfield conferred upon her the rank of Major.
After the war Pauline returned to the stage and traveled throughout the west delivering lectures in various cities for the benefit of charitable institutions. Her admirers would cheer and fire their guns into the ceiling. She played the wildest audiences on the whole frontier.
In 1879 in San Gabrielle, California she met and married her third husband, Jeremiah Fryer. They moved to Casa Grande where south of the Southern Pacific railroad terminal they put in a hotel and livery stable. One of the Pauline’s principle activities during her life in the Southwest was providing prospectors with money or other assistance to start their enterprise. According to the March 24, 1941, edition of the Arizona Republic Pauline helped numerous, hopeful prospectors. “It is legendary that men who were looking for all kinds of metals under almost every condition, principally adverse, knew that when their luck ran low they could get a stake from Pauline Cushman,” the Arizona Republic article noted. “These grubstakes largely were charity, though legend has it that a few paid Miss Cushman well for her faith and timely assistance.”
Several newspaper accounts from 1893 report that Pauline and her husband had a problem with alcohol. Hard drinking was a part of the lives of many people Pauline and Jeremiah came in contact with and the saloon the couple owned was always fully stocked. Pauline’s excessive drinking often led to trouble. The August 20, 1975, edition of the Casa Grande Dispatch reported a tale about Pauline’s drinking woes that had been told many times. “One morning a muleteer was throwing the harness on his mules when Pauline spotted one with raw shoulders from an ill-fitting collar,” the article read. “She told him to cut the mule out and he told her to go to hell. So she aimed a 30-30 at his head and started counting. He changed his mind and cut the mule out.”
The adverse effect alcohol had on Pauline often times gave her the courage to take on Jeremiah’s mistresses. She would announce to the neighborhood her feelings about the “harlots” keeping time with her husband and threaten to “beat the women senseless if they didn’t stay away from her man.” It was not uncommon for Casa Grande residents to witness a fist fight between Pauline and one of Jeremiah’s girlfriends.
In the mid-1880s, Pauline and Jeremiah moved to Florence, Arizona where Jeremiah was elected the Pinal County Sheriff. On November 15, 1881, Pauline presented Jeremiah with a daughter she named Emma. Jeremiah, who traveled a great deal and was away from home for long periods at a time, was not aware he was going to be a father. Pauline too had been out of town and when she returned with the child in her arms she happily told her husband the news that the baby was theirs.
Jeremiah was indeed the father but Pauline was not the infant’s mother. Pauline learned of a woman who was going to have her husband’s child and arranged to raise the little girl named Emma as her own. The unwed baby’s mother agreed to the plan in order to escape social stigma.
Emma struggled with a number of health issues, including a weak heart and she died on April 17, 1888. When Jeremiah learned the truth about his daughter’s real mother the two separated. Pauline moved to the San Francisco area and Jeremiah stayed behind in Arizona and raised the son he had with a woman named Rita Rodriguez. Pauline and Jeremiah never divorced.
Pauline was living in Oakland in 1893 when the government approved a request for her to receive a pension for her service during the Civil War. The pension amount was a mere $8 a month. Time and great loss had taken a toll on Pauline’s already fragile health and a suggestion was made that she should move to the Crocker’s Old People’s Home in San Francisco. Among Pauline’s physical ills included sciatica in her knees, heart, and rheumatic pains. She used opiates, prescribed by her doctors to deal with the pain. Pauline refused to move into the home, choosing instead to take a room at a boarding house where the owner could care for her.
On Saturday, December 2, 1897, the owner of the boarding house where Pauline was living discovered the former spy lying on the floor in her room near death. The doctors were called to the scene and after a quick examination determined that Pauline had overdoses on morphine. They tried to revive her but were unable to save her life.
News of the courageous Union spy’s death spread quickly. Newspaper articles from the San Francisco Call to the New York Sun reported on Pauline’s demise. “The state of absolute poverty in which “Major” Cushman died rendered it possible that she would be interred as a pauper in the Potter’s field,” the December 5, 1893, edition of the San Francisco Call noted. “Patriotic citizens have come forward to prevent this indignity being offered to one whose love of country made her risk so much in its cause.
“The Grand Army of the Republic has undertaken the arrangements for the major’s internment. Her body was embalmed yesterday and placed in a handsome cloth-covered casket donated as a tribute of admiration by the undertaker from whose parlor the funeral will take place. The burial services will be conducted tomorrow in the undertaker’s parlor.
“An inquest was held yesterday on Pauline Cushman Fryer’s body. The jury returned a verdict that Mrs. Fryer’s death was caused by an overdose of morphine taken without suicidal intent and to relieve pain.”
Pauline Cushman was buried at the San Francisco National Cemetery. She was sixty years old when she passed away.