Pauline Cushman, a spy for the Union in the Civil War

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Pauline was born as ‘Harriet Wood’ in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1833, her mother being French and her father being a Spanish merchant – and according to the book written about Pauline in 1865, he was son to one of Napoleon’s soldiers.

In her early life, her family moved to an Indian reservation in Michigan where they tried to get by trading with the natives.

Against her parents’ wishes she had her debut as an actress in 1862, and later moved to New York where she adopted her stage name ‘Pauline Cushman’.

Her theatrical career took her down to the south, where she met her first husband Charles Dickinson, a musician, whom she had two children with – Ida and Charles. When the Civil War broke out her husband signed up for the Union and headed out to war, only to return home 9 months later gravely ill and succumbed to the most dreaded killer of the time – dysentery.

With no husband to support her Pauline returned to acting, and her company took her down to the Union-controlled city of Louisville, Kentucky in 1863. One night after one of her performances, three men approached her and offered her $300 to make a toast to Confederate president Jefferson Davis the next time she performed. She accepted but immediately went and reported the bribe to Union officers, who in turn encouraged her to accept the bribe and use this opportunity to use her skills against the Confederacy, and employed her as a spy for the Union.

So, during her next performance she raised a goblet and exclaimed “Here’s to Jefferson Davis and the Southern Confederacy. May the South always maintain her Honor and her Rights!”

Causing great commotion, she was immediately fired by the theatre. But the Confederates sympathizers in the town took pity on her and invited her to their ranks. Thus she came to travel with them in the South, amidst Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s armies. With her charisma and charm she collected information and passed it on for the Union to hear.

One day she went too far – she had stuffed some battle plans in her boot and tried to smuggle it across the lines. But some Confederate soldiers found her suspicious and searched her, and found the documents she had hidden.

Pauline was now caught, and brought before General Braxton Bragg. The military court sentenced her to death by hanging. She awaited her sentence in prison in Shelbyville, Tennessee, where her health deteriorated. She even feigned her illness to be graver than it was to make the Confederates postpone her hanging. A fateful day arrived when the Union Army had advanced south enough to make the Confederate retreat from Shelbyville, leaving Pauline behind to be saved by Union forces, mere days before her sentence was to be carried out.

Her exploits were made well known across the U.S. and she received recognition from General James Garfield (the future President) and President Lincoln, who awarded her the honorary rank of Brevet Major.

Now known as ‘Miss Major Pauline Cushman’ she toured the post-war U.S. in her uniform, telling exciting tales of her adventures as a spy for many years, performing again and even had one of her plays made into a book, based on her life.

She remarried a man named Jeremiah Fryer, they ran a hotel together in Arizona. Their adopted daughter, Emma, died on April 17, 1888 at 6 years old of a seizure. The grief proved too heavy and the Fryers separated in 1890.

Later years brought her to San Francisco, she now lived alone and worked as a maid, her pension being too little to sustain her. Arthritis ravaged her bones and she became addicted to laudanum – a mixture of alcohol and opium which was the go-to pain medication in those days. She was 60 years old when she died on December 2nd in 1893 by an overdose of her medication, and was found by her landlady the next morning.

Largely forgotten by the world, only the Grand Army of the Republic remembered her and a group of veterans buried her with full honors in the Officer’s Circle in San Francisco National Cemetery, recounting her tales from the Civil War. Her tombstone simply reads:

Pauline C. Fryer

Union Spy

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