Her Best Role
1833 – 1893
The theater was packed for the performance of Seven Sisters. Word had passed through the Confederate sympathizers all afternoon—something unexpected was about to happen on stage.
Everyone in the audience leaned forward as Pauline walked out in her role as a fashionable gentleman. She lifted a wine glass as if to drink with a friend. Then, she stepped forward and surveyed the audience. Her clear voice rang out: “Here’s to Jefferson Davis and the Southern Confederacy. May the South always maintain her honor and her rights!”
A shocked silence greeted her, followed by a clatter of both praise and condemnation. The stage manager rushed over. Fellow actors stared in disdain. For an instant, Pauline wished she could tell them the truth. She really supported the Union, but she had made her decision and wouldn’t go back on it, even when Union guards arrived to arrest her.
As expected, the stage manager sent a note to her boarding house the next morning that read, “You will be unable to continue your present role.” Little did he know the new role she was about to play: Union spy.
* * * *
Pauline Cushman’s birth name was Harriet Wood. She was born in New Orleans, on June 10, 1833. Her father was a merchant, and the family lived in the heart of the city. Pauline loved the bustle of the wharves and the excitement of the marketplace.
After her father lost his business, they moved to Michigan. Pauline had six brothers, and she canoed, hunted, and tracked animals through the woods as well as or better than they did.
When Eastern culture spread to Michigan, Pauline heard all about the cafes and theaters of New York. That was the life for her! She went to New York and headed straight for the theater district. Her beauty was dazzling. She had no trouble getting into a variety show, and before long she was touring with the show in the Southern states.
Pauline married one of the musicians in the show’s orchestra, and they had two children who died very young. Then war broke out, and her husband became a musician in the Union army. Pauline was devastated when he died from camp fever (which could have been typhus or malaria). She threw herself into her stage career and moved to Louisville, Kentucky, to take a role in Seven Sisters.
Then one afternoon two Confederate officers who were visiting her made a proposal: If she dared to toast the Confederacy that night, they’d give her three hundred dollars.
Pauline was surprised. She and the actors in the company were Northerners. Kentucky was part of the Union. But she knew many of the residents of Louisville sided with the Confederates; some even spied for them.
The officers persisted, and Pauline began to warm up to the idea. Maybe she could get a name for herself as a Confederate supporter.
Then maybe she could spy for the Union.
Telling the officers she’d think about it, she went straight to a Union officer. He too saw the possibilities and promised to be at the theater that night. After Pauline was arrested, he helped her develop her new role as a spy.
Confederate supporters who had witnessed Pauline’s performance that night welcomed her into their social lives and into their confidence. She got a lot of information that way. Using her acting skills, she also disguised herself as a backwards country boy or a young gentleman to eavesdrop on conversations at the billiard parlors and other places where women weren’t allowed. In daring night rides into the countryside, she scouted out the whereabouts of Confederate troops. Her younger days of sneaking quietly through the woods with her playmates had given her the ability to move unnoticed through the woodlands surrounding Louisville.
Then came a new opportunity. Pauline was invited to join the New Nashville Theatre. She met with the head of the Union’s secret operations in the area. He didn’t want to waste this spy on the stage in Nashville. He wanted her to go right into the enemy camps to discover their strengths and weaknesses. He hoped she could meet the famous Confederate General Bragg and find out his plans.
One of Pauline’s brothers was an officer in the Confederate army. Though an argument had driven them apart and she hadn’t seen him for years, it would be a perfect cover: a young lady searching for her brother. She was warned not to take notes but to keep everything in her head. If she were caught, she could be tried—and hanged—as a spy.
The thought startled her, but Pauline wasn’t about to give up. She soon found someone willing to smuggle her across enemy lines. She met up with a Confederate captain, who was so enamored with her he wanted her to join his troops as his assistant. He had a Confederate uniform made for her. Pauline played along so he wouldn’t be suspicious. Lying, she promised she’d return to serve with him after she found her brother.
At the next camp she made a big mistake. Pauline had stolen papers from a Confederate officer and hid them—of all places—in her shoe. When she finally met up with General Bragg, his detectives found those hidden papers. She tried to act her way out of it. She pouted. She wheedled. She told him she was just a Southern lady who was desperately trying to find her brother.
Listening to her General Bragg almost felt he could believe her, but the evidence was just too great: the papers in her shoe, the Confederate uniform—a perfect disguise for a Northern spy. General Bragg also questioned why she hadn’t smuggled in medicine, quinine to prevent malaria, and food from the North, as other Southern ladies were doing.
The general locked Pauline in a room at a nearby inn to await trial. During her trial, Pauline made friends with one of the guards. He gave her the verdict: She had been found guilty and would be hanged. By this time, Pauline was sick from worry and a feeling of abandonment. Still she didn’t have any regret. She did not renounce her country, nor did she betray her mission.
Just when she thought it was all over for her, Pauline was saved. The Union army broke through the enemy lines, forcing General Bragg and his troops to retreat. They left Pauline behind.
What a hero’s welcome she received! Even the New York Times commended her: “Few have suffered more or rendered more to the Federal [Union] cause than . . . Pauline Cushman.”
But she could spy no more—everyone throughout the country recognized her face and knew that she had been a Union spy. Pauline made use of her Confederate uniform, wearing it in a one-woman show she developed about her daring adventures. She performed in Boston and other northern cities even before the war ended. After the war, Pauline toured in San Francisco and other western towns.
As the years passed, interest in the war and in Pauline’s exploits faded. She remarried when her second husband died. Then she was estranged from her third husband. Her fortune faded too. Perhaps nightmares from the close calls she had haunted her. Illness led her to drug addiction.
But when she died in San Francisco, the Civil War veterans had not forgotten what she had done for the Union. They gave a rifle salute during her funeral, and all those in attendance covered her grave with thousands of white flowers.
This biography was an excerpt from In Disguise! Stories of Real Women Spies by Ryan Hunter.