By Pat Smith
---- — Long, long ago in a city by a river – actually, it was Louisville where I was born and raised, and it was quite a long time ago too, that my mother told me about Pauline Cushman. Now 70 years later I’m wondering how my mother knew about Pauline. Maybe her story had been published in the Louisville Courier Journal.
Not long ago Rob Cox asked about women fighting in the Civil War. After reading his comments about the movie “Saving Private Ryan” in his movie review about “Gravity” in last Thursday’s Daily News I realized that he has a “feel” for history. What Cox wrote was, “I was absolutely pinned to my theatre seat with awe and horror and new-found respect for the men who carried out the D-day invasion.” I bet he’d write a fine story about the memories of a local veteran or two.
Pauline Cushman (real name Harriet Wood) was born in New Orleans in 1833. She moved to New York where she became an actress. During the Civil War, while playing at the Woods Theater in Louisville, she got the opportunity to spy for the Union.
Kentucky was a border state and it wasn’t always easy to know who sympathized with the North or who sympathized with the South. When two Confederate officers bribed Pauline to toast Jefferson Davis she told Union officers who thought she should accept because it might help them identify southern sympathizers.
So Pauline stopped her next performance to lift a glass and say, “Here’s to Jefferson Davis and the Southern Confederacy.” The place went wild. Confederate sympathizers cheered - Union sympathizer’s booed. She became a favorite with Confederate troops and helped the Union by letting them know when Confederates were shipping supplies and who the Confederate spies were and so on.
She became too sure of herself. She’d been told not to write anything down but to memorize everything which should be easy for an actress used to memorizing text. But she made drawings of some secret Confederate sites, stole a map from a Confederate officer and put them between the inner and outer sole of her boots.
She was caught, taken to Shelbyville, Tenn, tried as a spy, found guilty and sentenced to hang. She was good enough as an actress to pretend to be very ill. The Confederates didn’t want to hang an obviously ill woman so they postponed the execution until she recovered. It was said that the Confederates thought people would be disappointed if they hanged a dying woman. The truth was more likely that enough southern manners remained that they thought it unseemly to hang her at that point.
Then when General Rosecrans Union Army of the Cumberland started his advance toward the Confederates where Pauline was being kept the Confederates pulled out without her because they didn’t want an ill woman to hamper their departure. She was rescued by Union troops.
In recognition of the service she gave to the Union Army, General James A. Garfield (future president of the United States) awarded her the honorary rank of Major.
After the war, she tried acting again but was not so successful. Then P.T. Barnum put her on a tour dressed in the uniform of an Army Major. The stories she told were thought to be a bit embellished.
The war experience, however, had its effect on her. A biographer wrote, “Fits of depression would seize her and great tears would steal unconsciously down her marble-like features.” She married twice more, both of her children died, she became ill and started taking opium. She deliberately took an overdose when she was 60 years old in 1893. But she wasn’t forgotten by the Union. The California Grand Army of the Republic buried her with full military honors in their San Francisco cemetery.
A few years ago my friend Joyce Springmier gave me a book by Penny Colman titled, “Spies! Women in the Civil War.” I was amazed that Pauline Cushman was one of the women included in the book. I had not thought of the story my mother had told me for years. Many women spies were arrested but I don’t think any woman spy was actually hanged. Pauline came pretty close though.
In addition to the several women who worked as spies during the Civil War, there were women who put on a uniform and fought alongside men in the Civil War. Some have been documented and others have not.
And speaking of veterans, George “Rocky” Blare, a pilot over North Africa during WW II, will raise the new flag at MainSource Friday. Walter Pleak raised it last year.