Her Best Role
1833 – 1893
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.
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
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.
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.
* * * *
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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. This book details the lives of some of history's most
influential women spies. You can purchase this book for