A Civil War Actress’ Most Daring Role

By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2024, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in March 2024.

It’s been said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and this is most definitely true in war. Knowledge of things such as troop strength and position can be very dangerous for the side whose troop strength and position become known to the enemy, and the Civil War provides a number of examples of this. For instance, the fortuitous finding of Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders No. 191, which are now known as Lee’s lost orders, prompted even the glacially slow and agonizingly cautious George McClellan to step out of character and boost his coefficient of aggressiveness, at least until the time that he came to battle. Because of the critical importance of knowledge about the enemy, the Civil War has some instances when clever ruses were employed to deceive the enemy with fake information, such as John Magruder on the York-James Peninsula and Nathan Bedford Forrest at Cedar Bluff, Alabama (and elsewhere).

Knowledge is power, and military knowledge about the enemy makes an army more powerful. Consequently, protecting military information from the enemy is extremely important. In the Civil War, acquiring useful and accurate information about the enemy in a clandestine way was often a dangerous and potentially life-threatening endeavor. Those who engaged in wartime spying were constantly at risk, and if their espionage activities were discovered, they might very likely pay the ultimate price. Thus it was for a woman who lived part of her life in Cleveland, Ohio. This woman, who worked as an actress, took on the hazardous role of a Union spy and nearly lost her life because of it.

Some people’s life story is lost to history because they lived lives of obscurity with the result that so little was recorded about them (if anything at all) that their life story cannot be told. But for some people, their life story was so highly embellished that it is no longer possible to separate fact from myth, and this makes their truthful life story lost to history. Harriet Wood falls into the latter category. In fact, it has been said of her, “The record of her life still remains more fiction than truth.” As a result, when her life story is told, the word “reputedly” must be used frequently.

Pauline Cushman

Harriet Wood was born on June 10, 1833 in New Orleans, Louisiana. When she was ten years old, her father, a merchant whose formerly successful business was failing, moved the family to Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to set up a Native American trading post. The only girl in a family with eight children, Harriet became disenchanted in Grand Rapids, which at the time was a small town of about 1,500 population. Harriet aspired to be an actress and moved to New York City at the age of 18 to pursue her dream. She changed her name to Pauline Cushman and achieved modest success in her acting career. In 1853 she married Charles Dickinson, a musician. A few years later, Pauline left acting after she became pregnant. The couple moved to Cleveland, Ohio, which was Charles’ hometown, and it was there that their two children were born, a son named Charles in 1858 and a daughter named Ida in 1860. (Because of discrepancies between different accounts of Pauline’s life story, there are uncertainties in some of the details, such as the year of her marriage to Charles and the year of Ida’s birth. Intriguingly, a biography of Pauline written during her lifetime mentions nothing about Charles or the two children that Pauline had with him.)

In October 1861, Charles enlisted in the 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was organized at Camp Wood in Cleveland. Charles fell ill during the Shiloh Campaign, was discharged in June 1862, and returned to Cleveland. In December 1862, Charles became one of the more than 220,000 Union soldiers who died of disease. Now a widow, Pauline left her two young children with Charles’ family and resumed her career in acting. Sadly, both of these children died in childhood, and it is not known if Pauline ever had any more contact with them prior to their deaths.

The year after her husband’s death, Pauline Cushman was performing in a play. Cushman obtained a part in a play titled The Seven Sisters, which was being performed in Louisville, Kentucky in April 1863, and it was here that fate led her into her most daring role. Louisville, at that time, was under Union occupation. A large number of Louisville’s residents harbored strong Confederate sympathies, and it was known that there was a network that smuggled medical supplies and other necessities to the South. One Confederate sympathizer in Louisville was the landlady of the boardinghouse in which Cushman was staying. This led to Cushman coming into contact with quite a few Confederate sympathizers who frequented the place. Among these were two paroled Confederate officers who learned of Cushman’s role in The Seven Sisters.

In one scene of the play, Cushman’s character offers a toast. The two paroled Confederate officers, reputedly a Colonel Spear and a Captain Blincoe, approached Cushman and proposed to pay her if she changed the play’s wording of the toast and instead offered a toast to Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. (For what it’s worth, a search of the National Park Service Soldiers and Sailors Database revealed both a Colonel Spear and a Captain Blincoe listed among the Confederate personnel.) Spear and Blincoe reputedly offered to pay Cushman $300 to do this. Not clear is how $300 ($7,500 in 2024 value) came to be possessed by two paroled Confederate officers who decided that the best use for the money was to squander it on a flamboyant stunt. Cushman resisted by saying that she would certainly be dismissed from the cast of the play, but she said that she would consider the offer.

Orlando Moore

Subsequently, Cushman, who was staunchly pro-Union, went to the provost marshal of Louisville, Colonel Orlando Moore. Moore instructed Cushman to accept the offer, which surprised Cushman. But because of Cushman’s incipient relationship with Confederate sympathizers, Moore cleverly envisioned a long-range plan for the actress in which she would be an informant against those sympathizers. Moore also assured Cushman that she would be protected from the expected hostile reaction among Louisville’s Unionists. At the next performance of the play, Cushman did as she was instructed, and there nearly was a riot. Cushman was fired from the cast almost immediately because of her on-stage outburst of feigned loyalty to the Confederate cause, and this cemented her place in the confidence of Confederate sympathizers. Her acting career in the theater now ended, Cushman embarked on a different and much more dangerous acting career of infiltrating the network of Confederate sympathizers.

Her first success in her new endeavor involved the secessionist landlady of the boardinghouse where Cushman was staying. Cushman discovered that the landlady was poisoning sick and wounded Union soldiers housed there. According to the aforementioned biography of Cushman, late one night Cushman noticed a light coming from the landlady’s room. When Cushman went to investigate, she reputedly saw the landlady mixing white powder with ground coffee. Cushman faked illness as an excuse for her late-night visit and knocked on the door of the room, “which was stealthily opened; though not before the powdered coffee had been hastily put out of sight.” Cushman asked the landlady “what mysterious brewing were you at when I knocked?” The landlady, confident about Cushman’s sympathies thanks to the ruse at the theater, explained her plot to poison Union soldiers and even showed Cushman the package of poison. Cushman later reported this to Union authorities, and no more Union soldiers were housed at that place.

The landlady was not immediately arrested in order to protect Cushman’s cover, but the landlady was arrested after Cushman moved on to another spy mission. While the story about the landlady and the poisoning is likely true, some details about Cushman’s discovery of the plot seem difficult to comprehend. Specifically, if Cushman saw that the landlady “was engaged mixing some white powder with some ground coffee” and then “knocked gently at the door, which was stealthily opened,” how was Cushman able to see the landlady mixing the poison with the coffee if the door to the room was closed? It is inconsistencies like this which cloud Cushman’s exploits with uncertainty.

Cushman’s next and greatest espionage mission began in Nashville, Tennessee, which, like Louisville, was under Union occupation at the time. After Cushman’s dismissal from the cast in Louisville, she was hired as a member of the cast for a play in Nashville. To maintain her ruse as a Confederate sympathizer, the Union authorities impeded Cushman’s departure from Louisville with several feigned obstacles, which, by pre-arrangement, Cushman was able to evade. The pro-secessionists in Nashville, who knew about Cushman’s pro-Confederacy toast in Louisville, became aware of Cushman’s arrival and were elated to learn that she was able to slip out of Louisville without either a pass or swearing an oath of allegiance. This set up Cushman well with the Confederate sympathizers in her new city of residence.

William Truesdail

Unknown to those sympathizers, it had been arranged for Cushman to meet with William Truesdail, who was the chief of military police in Nashville and an intelligence officer for the Union’s Army of the Cumberland. Truesdail devised a scheme in which Cushman was to travel behind enemy lines to obtain information about the Confederate’s Army of Tennessee under the hoax that she was searching for her brother. Truesdail instructed Cushman to commit to memory all that she learned about Confederate dispositions and not to write down anything or pilfer any written material. Cushman’s mission was progressing well, and she was able to gather important information about the Army of Tennessee’s fortifications and troop positions. However, in disobedience of her instructions, Cushman made sketches and, according to the aforementioned biography of Cushman, hid the sketches “in her boot, between the inner and outer sole.”

On her trek back to Union lines, Cushman was apprehended by rebel scouts, who reputedly brought her to John Hunt Morgan for questioning. Morgan then reputedly sent her to Nathan Bedford Forrest for questioning, and Forrest reputedly sent her to Braxton Bragg, the Army of Tennessee’s commander. As related in the biography, Bragg questioned Cushman and became convinced that she was a spy. Bragg then had Cushman questioned by Alexander McKinstry, the Army of Tennessee’s provost marshal, who showed Cushman the sketches that were hidden in her boot. The drawings were presumably discovered after a search of the boot, which had been found among the contents of Cushman’s saddle bag. This quickly led to a military trial, at which Cushman was convicted of spying and sentenced to death by hanging. (It should be noted that the biography of Cushman also indicates that the sketches were hidden “under the cork soles of her gaiters,” which differs from the statement in the same biography that the drawings were concealed in the sole of her boot. This is another example of the kind of inconsistencies that cloud Cushman’s exploits with uncertainty.)

Cushman was held in Shelbyville, Tennessee until the sentence could be carried out. During this time, Cushman either fell ill or feigned illness, and the sentence was delayed. To Cushman’s good fortune, William Rosecrans began his Tullahoma Campaign, which led to Bragg withdrawing southeastward and evacuating, among other places, Shelbyville. When Shelbyville was evacuated, Cushman was considered too ill to be moved, so she was left behind, which spared her from the gallows. After the Army of the Cumberland occupied Shelbyville, Cushman returned to Union hands.

Cushman received such acclaim from the Army of the Cumberland that the honorary rank of major was bestowed on her by, among others, James Garfield. Because Cushman’s identity was now known among the enemy, her spying career was at an end. But she was able to return to the theater, because her exploits became so renowned that she began a performance tour consisting of grandiose portrayals of her espionage adventures staged for paying customers. Some of Cushman’s performances were done under the auspices of P.T. Barnum, including some at Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. Cushman, who was billed as the Spy of the Cumberland, typically appeared in a military uniform and regaled audiences with exaggerated accounts of her spy missions.

After several years, people tired of Cushman’s repeated stories, and she once again found her stage career over. From that point until her death, her life became unsettled. In 1872 she moved to San Francisco and married a man named August Fichtner. Fichtner died less than a year later, and Cushman worked for a few years in logging camps and also operated a hotel. In 1879 Cushman married Jere Fryer, and they operated a hotel in Arizona territory. Their marriage became strained after the death of their adopted daughter in 1890, and they separated. Cushman then moved back to San Francisco where she lived for the last three years of her life, which were very difficult. Impoverished, she applied for and received a meager pension based on her first husband’s military service. The total was less than $1,000. To support herself, Cushman worked as a seamstress and a charwoman. Afflicted with rheumatism and arthritis, she became addicted to painkillers.

On December 2, 1893, life’s end came to the woman who began her earthly stay as Harriet Wood, who reached maturity in a remote town in western Michigan and later achieved her dream of being an actress, who served her country in a dangerous capacity, and who in her later years scratched out a peripatetic existence. On the morning of the day she died, Cushman was found unconscious in her bed. Doctors were summoned but were not able to revive her, and she died that afternoon at the age of 60. Having outlived two of her husbands, separated from her third husband, and having also outlived all of her children, Cushman had no family to enrich her final years, during which she lived a subsistence existence alone in a San Francisco boardinghouse. The cause of death was an overdose of painkiller, perhaps morphine, laudanum, or opium, although there is evidence that she used all three. There were even rumors of suicide.

Cushman’s grave marker

Of Cushman’s death, The San Francisco Call reported, “A childless, gray-haired, penniless, broken woman, almost without friends, died a lonely death in a Market-street lodging-house yesterday.” This was a truly tragic end for someone who endangered her life in service to her country. However, there was one bit of gratification and deserved recognition associated with Cushman’s passing. The article in the Call about Cushman’s death indicated that she was to be buried in a pauper’s cemetery unless funds could be made available “to defray the expense of more decent interment.” The Call also noted that Cushman’s “services to the nation in time of great peril merit military honors when her body is laid to rest.” Fortunately, the Grand Army of the Republic and the Women’s Relief Corps stepped in and gave Cushman a large funeral, and Cushman’s remains were interred in San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio. Her grave is in Officer’s Circle and has a tombstone that bears her name as Pauline Fryer, her married name with her third husband. Her tombstone also notes her service as a Union spy.

Pauline Cushman may not be as well-known as other woman spies of the Civil War, such as Belle Boyd, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Elizabeth Van Lew, Harriet Tubman, or Mary Bowser. But Cushman’s story is every bit as compelling as those of other woman spies. One person who has studied Cushman posed the question of “whether Cushman deserves her legendary reputation” and answered with “a qualified yes.” While there is some uncertainty regarding the details of Cushman’s exploits, Cushman unequivocally did espionage for the Union army. Hence, because she put her life in danger to assist the Union cause, she earned her place in history. As an actress, if Cushman were alive today, she could probably appreciate that sometimes when a movie advertises that it features its lead actress in her most daring role, the inference is that the role is risqué. This is a not-so-subtle technique to entice moviegoers by titillating them. But Pauline Cushman’s most daring role was not a risqué one; it was a risky one, so risky that it almost cost Cushman her life.

Related link:
History Repeating Itself, without the “Condemned”

Sources (Click on the book title below to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

A number of sources were used for this article. The most useful sources are as follows.

Life of Pauline Cushman, the Celebrated Union Spy and Scout by Ferdinand L. Sarmiento (1865)

The Actress Who Left the Stage to Become a Civil War Spy by Emily Toomey, At the Smithsonian, August 12, 2019

Pauline Cushman, National Park Service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Pauline Cushman, American Battlefield Trust

Pauline Cushman: Civil War Spy and Theater Actress, History of American Women

Pauline Cushman, Actress and Union Spy by Ciaran Conliffe

The San Francisco Call, volume 75, number 2, December 3, 1893, page 8

Cushman, Pauline (1833-1893), Santa Cruz Public Libraries, Local History

‘Union Spy’: The Forgotten Tale Behind the Presidio’s Most Intriguing Grave by Katie Dowd

Pauline Cushman Fryer, Find a Grave

Larson on Christen, ‘Pauline Cushman: Spy of the Cumberland’ by C. Kay Larson

Two Women Who Spied during the American Civil War: Going Undercover with Belle Boyd and Pauline Cushman in the Archive of Americana by Bruce Roberts

Profile and Biography of Pauline Cushman by Jone Johnson Lewis