Pauline Cushman

Portrait Pauline Cushman Fryer in soldier uniform

Golden Gate National Recreation Area Park Archives

Quick Facts
Civil War Spy
Place of Birth:
New Orleans, LA
Date of Birth:
June 10, 1833
Place of Death:
San Francisco, CA
Date of Death:
December 1, 1893
Place of Burial:
San Francisco, CA
Cemetery Name:
San Francisco National Cemetery

Though trained as an actress, Major Pauline Cushman's legacy is her service as a spy for the Union during the Civil War.

Born as Harriet Wood, Cushman’s family moved from New Orleans to Gand Rapids, to establish a Native American Trading Post when she was very young. With her seven brothers, Cushman learned how to ride horses, shoot shotguns, and canoe down the local rivers. However, she wanted to become an actress, and at 17, left for New York City to pursue her dream. By 18, she was back in New Orleans and found jobs in the theater, taking the stage name: Pauline Cushman

She married Charles Dickinson (musician) in 1853, and together, they had two children. By 1862, her husband was discharged from the 41st Ohio Infantry due to severe illness and passed away winter of that year. Shortly after, Cushman relocated to Louisville, Kentucky to pursue acting again, leaving her children behind with family. Kentucky at the time, was a hotbed of dissent during the Civil War. Internal division within the state between Unionists and Confederate sympathizers was tense and often erupted in violence.

On April 1863, Pauline Cushman was performing in the play The Seven Sisters at a theater in Louisville when she was approached by two Confederate officers. They asked her to make a toast to the Confederacy during the performance, even offering her up to $350. Unsure, Cushman asked Colonel Orlando Hurley Moore, the U.S. Provost Marshal, in Louisville what to do. In response, he told her to accept the proposition and report back to his office the next day. That night, during her performance she boldly proposed a toast to Jefferson Davis president of the Confederate States (in the script, the toast was supposed to go to President Lincoln). Afterwards she was let go from the play but Moore officially offered her a job as a Union spy. 

As a spy, Cushman used her acting skills to pose as a Confederate sympathizer in order to gain information. Disguised as a southern woman in a boarding house, Cushman was able to stop the poisoning of Union soldiers by the boardinghouse’s owner. After learning the Union soldier’s food and drink would be poisoned, Cushman was able to rescue the soldiers and the owner was arrested. Dressed as a man, Cushman convinced a Southern woman carrying important supplies to the Confederates, that she was an undercover Confederate officer. After being invited to join the sympathizer, Cushman was able to notify Union forces where she was and all supplies headed South were confiscated.  

In the summer of 1863, Col. William Truesdail, under the command of Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans assigned her to gather intel in Nashville, Tennessee. Under the guise of “searching for a lost brother,” she was to gain access to Confederate camps in Tennessee to ascertain the size of their forces, their supplies, and if they’re building any fortification. Her contacts in the Union Army also warned her not to physically steal any documents. Instead, they advised her to only study information and pass it on by memory. However, before she reached the camps she befriended a young soldier that was drawing fortification maps for the Army of Tennessee. She had a tough decision to make: take the map OR stick with the original plan. She quickly stuffed it into her boot to take back across the Union line. While attempting to cross, another Confederate soldier grew suspicious of her travels and stopped her. They discovered the map, arrested her, and took her to Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s headquarters where Bragg had her tried as a spy. When her identity as such was confirmed, Pauline Cushman was sentenced to death by hanging.

Before the sentence could be carried out, she fell ill. Some accounts state she was "acting" ill, others assert she had tyfoid fever. Either way, her perceived illness saved her life. Union forces captured the town of Shelbyville and the Confederates quickly retreated--leaving Cushman behind. Following her brush with death, her bravery and service to the Union was widely recognized. She received public attention and recognition from General Garfield (future U.S. President) and President Lincoln, awarded her the honorary rank of Brevet Major, for her heroic service as a spy. The Union Ladies of Nashville presented her with a military uniform, which she wore as she performed a one-woman show in 1864 under the circus-manager P.T. Barnum. The show was all about her espionage exploits and was billed as the “Spy of the Cumberland” and the “the greatest heroine of the age.” Ferdinand Sarmiento, a friend of Cushman, also wrote The Life of Pauline Cushman: The Celebrated Union Spy and Scout exaggeratingly detailing her time as a spy. 

In 1879, Cushman married Jeremiah Fryer in Arizona. The couple ran a hotel for about ten years, but eventually separated in 1890 after the death of their daughter. Cushman retuned to San Francisco shortly afterwards to try acting again. Her health began to decline in the years that followed as she suffered from chronic rheumatism and arthritis. She died on December 1, 1893 in San Francisco at the age of 60. Though she was alone at the time, she was not forgotten. When the Grand Army Republic learned of her death they held a large funeral with military honors for her. She now lies in the Officer’s Circle at the Presidio in the San Francisco National Cemetery.

Her grave marker simply reads: “Pauline C. Fryer—Union Spy.”

Photograph of Grave Marker for Pauline C. Fryer at San Francisco National Cemetery.

Grave marker for Pauline C. Fryer at San Francisco National Cemetery.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Last updated: September 28, 2020