Harriet Wood became an actress a few years before the Civil War began and changed her name to Pauline Cushman, touring the country for various plays.
While Civil War battles raged early in 1863, a role led her to Wood’s Theater in Union-controlled Louisville, Kentucky. There were paroled Confederate officers in the area. Pauline’s beauty captured their attention and one asked her to toast Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the stage.
Her adventurous spirit aroused, Pauline met with Union Colonel Moore, Louisville’s provost marshal. The colonel, seizing the opportunity for her to gain the Southerners’ trust, advised her to accept the challenge.
While on stage the next evening, Pauline raised her glass in a toast. “Here’s to Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy. May the South always maintain her honor and her rights.”
Her impromptu toast appalled Union supporters in the crowd and thrilled Southern sympathizers. Pauline was fired and sent to the South.
Pauline traveled to Nashville where she met with Union Colonel William Truesdail, the Chief of Army Police. Truesdail asked to her to learn what she could about the Confederates, though he warned that, if caught spying, she’d be hanged.
She soon gained the trust of the Southerners. While at Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s army camp, she found his battle plans. The Southerners became suspicious of her. Pauline’s quick thinking and acting skills nearly saved her—until the battle plans were discovered in her shoe.
At a trial, she was found guilty and sentenced to death. Pauline then became seriously ill—or employed her acting skills to seem so—delaying her hanging. Then, at the end of June, she heard a loud commotion outside. The Confederates abandoned the camp, leaving Pauline behind. To her great joy, the sound of Union bugles blared in the camp and she was rescued.
Both President Abraham Lincoln and General James A. Garfield (future President) praised Pauline. General Garfield gave her the rank of major as thanks for her suffering while in secret service.
Before the Civil War ended, Pauline began touring as Miss Major Cushman, speaking about her adventures and performing one-woman plays about them.
-Sandra Merville Hart
Biography.com Editors. “Pauline Cushman Biography,” Biography.com, 2019/03/17 https://www.biography.com/people/pauline-cushman.
Moore, Frank. Women of the War: True Stories of Brave Women in the Civil War, Blue Gray Books, 1997.
“Pauline Cushman,” NPS.gov, 2019/03/17 https://www.nps.gov/people/pauline-cushman.htm.