Friday, May 25, 2018

A Civil War Spy in Vallejo

The U.S. Civil War divided the loyalties of countless Americans, turning neighbor against neighbor and family member against family member. Actress Pauline Cushman refused to allow the War to keep her from practicing her profession on stages throughout the South, despite having lived much of her life in the North. Cushman publicly professed her loyalty to Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, while at the same time she was discreetly gathering information and intelligence that she turned over to Union military officials. In recognition of her clandestine efforts for the Union cause she was made a brevet major by General (later President) James A. Garfield. President Lincoln subsequently named her an honorary major. After the War, Cushman supported herself in part by embarking on a speaking tour, which brought her to Vallejo in January of 1873. The Vallejo Evening Chronicle of January 10, 1873 announced her lecture as follows:

LECTURE TONIGHT – “The lecture of Miss Major Pauline Cushman, at Farragut Hall, comes off this evening. The lecturess will give a history of her career during the war of the Rebellion; narrating the hardships and perils which she underwent in the service of her country. Miss Cushman although a Southron, born and bred, having been matured and educated in New Orleans, the hot-bed of secession, proclaimed her allegiance to the Old Flag at the outbreak of the war. In the capacity of a scout, combining with her woman’s wit, a masculine fearlessness and intrepidity, she rendered important assistance to the army of the Union. Miss Cushman has the reputation of being a fluent and pleasing speaker; her lecture tonight can hardly fail to draw a full house.”

The following day the Evening Chronicle recapped the highlights of her program:

Miss Major Cushman - Reminiscences of the War

Farragut Hall
“The lecture of Miss Major Cushman at Farragut Hall, Friday evening, was not as largely attended as might have been desired. The dull times and bad traveling were in a great measure responsible for the slimness of the audience. The lecturess is very prepossing [sic] in appearance, and is about thirty years of age. In her introductory remarks she explained the reasons which had induced her to enter the lecture field. She had purchased a piece of property in Chicago, after the close of the war, and it had been swept away by the great conflagration. She was thus left without any means of support, and necessity had dictated her action. The speaker then carried her audience back to the time when she was an actress upon the boards of a Nashville theatre. This was at the earlier portion of the war. The city was under martial law, and General Boyle was the commander of the Post. As her relations were all Secessionist, one of her brothers being a colonel in the Rebel army, Miss Cushman was from the first supposed by the Rebels to be a sympathizer with the Southern cause. She detailed the circumstances which lead to her entering the secret service of the Federal army, at the request of General Boyle. Of her drinking a toast, at a preconcerted arrangement with the General, to Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy, on the stage; of her mock arrest by General Boyle; of her release; of her discharge by the manager of the theatre, who although an excellent Rebel himself, had too much regard for his own interests to keep in his theatre, a person, who he thought, might bring him into difficulty with the authorities. The lecturess detailed the consummation of the plot between herself and the General. How she was expelled beyond the Union lines, and sought her friends in the South as a refugee. She spoke of visiting Hillsboro and Libby prisons, and the lecturess detailed with great pathos and feeling, the sufferings of the poor Boys in Blue in those loathsome and horrible places. Her final arrest on suspicion, by the Rebel authorities, and her long journey down to Hamilton, Georgia, under the custody of the noted guerilla Morgan, were spoken of. Miss Cushman speaks of Morgan as a man of much suavity of demeanor, and says that he treated her with the greatest courtesy while she was under his charge.

John Hunt Morgan

The “damning proofs” of Miss Cushman’s real character were soon discovered. The plans of Rebel fortifications which she had placed within the heel of her shoe, were discovered, and she was condemned to be hung. She asked to be shot instead. But the authorities were inexorable; she had been convicted of being a spy and must die a spy’s death. She was then in Nashville, Tenn. The hardships and privations which she had undergone during her captivity had had their effect upon her frame, and she was lying upon her bed, sick almost unto death. Even the cruelty of the Rebels could not permit the execution of a woman in such a condition, and so the enforcement of the death sentence was postponed. But the hour of her deliverance had now arrived. A forward movement was made by the Union Army, Bragg was sent flying from Nashville, and the gallant heroine was saved. The lecturess spoke of afterward seeing Morgan while confined in the Columbus penitentiary. How he recognized her and said that “the boot had been placed on the other foot” since they last met. “But,” said he, “I am only going to stay here a few days.” He told the truth, for a few days after, the daring and wonderful escape of the guerilla from prison was announced. Miss Cushman spoke for over an hour, and during that period enlisted the fullest attention and interest. She is a very prepossessing speaker and has a most pleasing address. The masculine boldness so disagreeably conspicuous in many lecturesses, is with her, lacking. She is a true woman having all the gentleness and modesty which characterizes true femininity. Miss Cushman, we understand, is a sister of the late Charlotte Cushman, the famous tragedienne. This is the first lecture which the speaker has delivered in this State and her second on this Slope, she having lectured at Virginia City shortly before her arrival in Vallejo.”

Cushman’s post-Civil War life was not an easy one. Married three times, she was widowed twice and divorced once. She also had three children, two of whom were raised by other family members. The third, an adopted daughter, died in childhood. In addition to lecturing, she briefly operated a hotel in Casa Grande, Arizona. Later, nearly destitute, she moved to San Francisco where she worked menial jobs. Ill health and arthritis brought on an addiction to morphine, and Cushman died of an overdose in San Francisco on December 2, 1893 at age 60. She is buried, under her married name Pauline Fryer, in the Presidio of San Francisco.


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