PAULINE CUSHMAN: SPY OF THE CUMBERLAND
by William J. Christen, Edinborough Press, $39.95, 436 pages, Illus.
Over the years dating back to the Civil War, writers have presented fanciful sketches of the life of Harriet Wood, who pursued a career in the theater and adopted a stage name.
“Pauline Cushman: Spy of the Cumberland” is the result of author William J. Christen’s effort to rectify this situation by providing a complete biography, or in his words, a “full accounting” of this woman, atypical for her time, who made her mark in a number of ways in different locales. The subtitle is derived from her service as a spy for the Union Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee.
In actuality, spying played a minor role in Cushman’s life. Her involvement in the Civil War was short-lived, and she had a minimal influence on events.
Nonetheless, this independent and spirited young woman parlayed her stint as a Civil War spy, along with an honorary commission as a field officer, into a career as an entertainer. Her self-styled persona as Miss “Major” Pauline Cushman was the catalyst for her popularity.
In keeping with the variety of roles that Cushman played over some 60 years, the author showcases her story in four acts and multiple scenes. Because facts about this heroine’s activities were elusive, the author had to ferret out scattered details to compile a coherent portrait of her adventures. Relying heavily on newspaper files in locations where she performed or conducted business, Mr. Christen pieced together enough data to satisfy his quest for the authentic Pauline Cushman.
The author discovered a woman who did not easily fit into a mold. Her complex personality was seen in a mother who abandoned two young children to pursue the career of her dreams. Yet many whose paths she crossed through the years considered her worthy of admiration and respect. Her natural beauty and endearing personality attracted lovers and companions, but her peripatetic lifestyle and the hard knocks she received along the way eventually led to dependence on drugs.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Cushman was in an unhappy marriage. Her musician husband joined the Army but soon succumbed to disease and alcoholism. She left her two children with relatives in Cleveland and went off to Louisville, Ky., to make a living in the theatrical world. She first got involved in cloak-and-dagger activities when the Union provost marshal there recruited her to inform on Southern sympathizers among local residents.
In the spring of 1863, she sought work at a new theater in Nashville, Tenn. Word of her undercover work in Louisville reached Col. William Truesdail, espionage chief for Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland. He hired her as a scout to cross enemy lines and gather information about the strength, position and fortifications of the Confederate army under Gen. Braxton Bragg.
The author as much as possible sorts fact from fiction in Cushman’s story as her expedition eventually went sour, and she was taken into custody as a spy.
Rebel cavalry leaders John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest both questioned her and sent her on to Bragg’s headquarters. There a court-martial convicted her of spying, with a sentence of death by hanging. She barely escaped with her life, as Rosecrans’ army overran the area and dramatically rescued her in a weakened condition.
Upon arrival back within Union-held territory, Cushman was acclaimed a hero and cared for by high-ranking officers, including getting personal attention from Lt. Col. James A. Garfield, an acknowledged fancier of women and future president of the United States.
In relating Cushman’s involvement, the author provides an account of Rosecrans’ 1863 spring campaign against Bragg’s army in Tennessee, including efforts of both sides to employ spies to gain information about the size and disposition of enemy forces.
With her career as a Union spy ended, Cushman made the most of her newfound fame. Building on her experience as a budding actress before the Civil War, she decided to tell the story of her spy activities to the public while dressed in a major’s uniform. She also acted in plays and skits as part of her repertoire.
Her appearances included an extensive engagement at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York. From there she went on the road for several years and performed in a number of states.
Her exotic charms and alluring manner enticed men to seek her company and affection. While she was performing in New York, the Herald Tribune described Cushman, who was of Spanish and French heritage, as “a handsome brunette, with large, expressive black eyes … of rounded and graceful figure and very winning manners and address.”
Yet she was equally comfortable in male or female roles. One observer noted that “with her major’s uniform which she wears with the ease of a soldier, [she] might pass easily for a young man.”
When audience interest in her spy narrative waned eventually, she started a new life in California, then moved on to an unsettled region of Arizona. During this time, her intrepid nature came to the fore when she horsewhipped an overly aggressive suitor. She also packed a pistol to help keep the peace in a frontier community. In some respects, her life parallels those of better-known contemporaries Annie Oakley and “Calamity Jane” Canary.
William J. Christen demonstrated resourcefulness in piecing together Pauline Cushman’s life story. He pursued all leads and collected every scrap of information about the one-time “Spy of the Cumberland.” Be forewarned, however, that the author appears to have included almost every research item he uncovered. There is considerable material that is repetitive or marginally related, and better editing could have reduced the length substantially.
That said, this is a story many will find appealing. It is a welcome contribution to scholarship about the historical roles of women, particularly in relation to the Civil War. It also is overdue recognition of a 19th-century personality who served the Union cause and went on to make a name for herself despite societal barriers that existed at the time.
Thomas J. Ryan is a former Department of Defense intelligence officer and current vice president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover.