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Pauline Cushman: One Very Cool Chick
Plus programming note: I'm on "Real Time with Bill Maher" tonight!
First off, I’m on “Real Time with Bill Maher” tonight, so tune in on HBO if you can! I’ll be joined by Caitlin Flanagan, whom I will endeavor not to ask on-set to be my mentor and Bob Odenkirk, whom I will endeavor not to ask on-set to be my lawyer.
Second, another women’s history figure for you, with costume, below!
(Another in a series of women’s history posts for my kiddos. I’m doing them every once in a while when I have time to put a costume together, both for them and you! Good news, Substack now lets me embed the videos.)
Born Harriet Wood in New Orleans, La. in 1833, this future actress-turned-spy for the Union changed her name when she decided to pursue an acting career in New York at 18.
Before that she spent her youth on a frontier trading post in Grand Rapids, Mich. There she learned skills that would later help her convincingly play a Confederate soldier, among other roles, in her off-stage exploits.
As legend has it, and let’s face it, though contemporary and historical accounts exist, she was a spy, so some particulars of this may be just that—legend. Nonetheless, here is a tale of her most-cited adventures.
She was briefly married, but widowed, and by some accounts left her two young children with family while she pursued the stage again in Kentucky. By other accounts, they may have died in infancy. Kentucky, a border state, was largely under Union control at the time, but obviously home to many a Rebel sympathizer and sometimes paroled Rebel POWs.
One day, she was approached by two Confederate soldiers asking her to make a toast from the stage to the South for a generous sum. Cushman, a Union supporter, reported this request to a Union officer who told her to go for it.
On the night of the next performance, she gamely lifted her glass and proclaimed, “Here’s to Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy. May the South always maintain her honor and her rights!”
There was brief silence as Union supporters stood aghast. Rebels cheered, a melee ensued, and Cushman was promptly fired by the theater owner. But her olden-day cancellation made her the Confederate heroine of the hour and a perfect spy.
She went on to reportedly foil an attempted poisoning of Union soldiers in a boarding house, root out contraband supply chains, and gather intel while dressed as a Confederate soldier at saloons. When given her final, dangerous mission, she is said to have said:
“I will do all that a woman should do and all that a man dare do for my country and the Union.”
She posed as a sweet Southern lady looking for her brother in Confederate camps. She stole documents from a young Rebel soldier, but she was found with them in her boot and sentenced to hanging. The year was 1864.
She either got very sick or acted very sick in order to have her hanging delayed long enough that Confederate troops left her to die when they retreated. Union troops scooped her up, she was awarded an honorary form of Major rank, and became a performer in P.T. Barnum’s productions, telling tales nationwide of her wartime exploits. She went by Miss Major Pauline Cushman.
After her star faded, Cushman remarried twice, but neither marriage lasted long. She moved to San Francisco, where she was fairly destitute and infirm, suffering from arthritis and living off a war pension she received after 30 years of fighting for it (her husband’s, not hers!). She overdosed self-medicating her pain with opium at 60. She was buried with military honors at the Presidio’s National Cemetery.