Pauline Cushman

Union Spy in the Civil War

Pauline Cushman
Pauline Cushman. Stock Montage / Getty Images

Pauline Cushman, an actress, is known as a Union spy during the American Civil War. She was born June 10, 1833 and died December 2, 1893.  She was also known by her last married name, Pauline Fryer, or her birth name, Harriet Wood.

Pauline Cushman Biography

Pauline Cushman – birth name Harriet Wood -- was born in New Orleans. Her parents’ names are unknown. Her father, she claimed, was a Spanish merchant who had served in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.

 She grew up in Michigan after her father moved the family to Michigan when she was ten. At 18, she moved to New York and became an actress.  She toured, and in New Orleans met and in about 1855 married a musician, Charles Dickinson.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Charles Dickinson enlisted in the Union Army as a musician. He became ill and was sent home where he died in 1862 of head injuries.  Pauline Cushman returned to the stage, leaving her children (Charles Jr. and Ida) for periods in the care of her in-laws.

An actress, Pauline Cushman toured after the Civil War touting her exploits as a spy who had been captured and sentenced, saved three days before her hanging by the invasion of the area by Union troops.

Spy in the Civil War

Her story is that she became an agent when, appearing in Kentucky, she was offered money to toast Jefferson Davis in a performance. She took the money, toasted the Confederate President -- and reported the incident to a Union official, who saw that this act would make it possible for her to spy on Confederate camps.

She was publicly fired from the theater company for toasting Davis, and then followed the Confederate troops, reporting back on their movements to Union forces. It was while spying in Shelbyville, Kentucky, that she was caught with documents giving her away as a spy. She was taken to Lt. Gen. Nathaniel Forrest (later head of the Ku Klux Klan) who passed her off to General Bragg, who did not believe her cover story.

  He had her tried as a spy, and she was sentenced to hang.  Her stories later claimed that her execution was delayed because of her ill health, but she was miraculously rescued when the Confederate forces retreated as the Union Army moved in.

Spying Career Over

She was given an honorary commission as a major of cavalry by President Lincoln on the recommendation of two generals, Gordon Granger and the future president James A. Garfield. She later fought for a pension but based on her husband’s service.

Her children had died by 1868. She spent the rest of the war and the years after again as an actress, telling the story of her exploits. P.T. Barnum featured her for a time. She published an account of her life, especially her time as a spy, in 1865: The Life of Pauline Cushman. Most scholars agree that much of the biography is exaggerated.

Later in Life: Struggles

An 1872 marriage to August Fichtner in San Francisco ended just a year later when he died. She married again in 1879, to Jere Fryer, in Arizona Territory where they operated a hotel.  Pauline Cushman’s adopted daughter Emma died, and the marriage fell apart, with separation in 1890.

She eventually returned to San Francisco, impoverished.

She worked as a seamstress and chairwoman. She was able to win a small pension based on her first husband’s Union Army service.

She died in 1893 of an overdose of opium which may have been intentional suicide because her rheumatism was keeping her from earning a living. She was buried by the Grand Army of the Republic in San Francisco with military honors.

Books About Pauline Cushman

  • Sarmiento, F.L. Life of Pauline Cushman, the Celebrated Union Spy and Scout: Comprising Her Early History; Her Entry into the Secret Service of the Army of the Cumberland, and Exciting Adventure with the Rebel Chieftains and Others While Within the Enemy's Lines; Together with Her Capture and Sentence to Death by General Bragg and Final Rescue by the Union Army under General Rosecrans. 1865.
  • Christen, Bill. Pauline Cushman, Spy of the Cumberland. Publication date: 2003.