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Food & History: Pauline Cushman, Yankee spy

Pauline Cushman lived a sad and difficult life, with a brief period of fame and glory sandwiched in the middle. She deserved a kinder fate. The triumphant tour by the former Yankee spy in 1864 was a much needed morale booster for the Union cause.

Pauline was born in New Orleans in 1833. Her mother was French, her father Spanish. She was not a classical beauty but the combination gave her a striking, exotic look.

Her father fled the Crescent City when she was young to open a trading post in Michigan. When Pauline turned 18, she wanted to go home to New Orleans but her father forbade it. She could be arrested for the debts he had left behind.

Instead, she left for New York hoping to become an actress. Her acting talent was mediocre but her sultry good looks won her many roles. While appearing in New Orleans she met and married an undependable musician named Dickinson. When the Civil War broke out, Dickinson left his pregnant wife to fend for herself and volunteered for the Confederate army. The baby died a week after birth. Meanwhile, Dickinson had died of dysentry. Pauline reassumed her maiden name and went back to New York.

In March 1863 she was appearing in a play "The Seven Sisters" in Louisville. Kentucky was divided between Unionist and Confederates. Hundreds of paroled rebel officers had settled in Louisvbille.To create a disturbance, they offered the actress $300 if she would drink a toast to Jeff Davis and the Confederacy while on stage. She claimed to be a loyal southerner but she wanted the money, first. She hid the $300 in her shoe and immediately reported the offer to federal authorities. Colonel Truesdale recruited Cushman as a Yankee spy. He told her to go ahead with the toast. She would be a heroine in the south. He also warned her never to write anything down. "Use your head as an actress, and remember the information," he instructed his new recruit.

The following night Pauline raised her champage glass to the audience and proclaimed: "Here's to Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy! May the South always maintain her honor and her rights!"

Pandemonium erupted! The manager fired her. Rebels and Unionists battled in the audience.The officers had their disturbance, but Truesdale had a Yankee spy who could operate freely in rebel territory.

Her career in espionage lasted less than a year. She was used as a courier, contacting loyal groups in the south, and collecting information on Confederate plans. Her cover story was that she was searching for her brother who was serving in the rebel army.

In early l864 she was captured by scouts from General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry. They found notes and maps, hidden in her shoes. Forrest told her, "I'd send a bullet through you, if I could," but sent her along to his commander, General Braxton Bragg. Bragg accused her of being a Yankee because of her accent.

"I've been playing Yankee parts so long I've caught their twang," she responded.

She was court martialed and sentenced to be hanged. The gallant actress requested she be executed by a firing squad, instead.

Her execution was delayed because Pauline fell ill. Or perhaps the actress feigned her illness. She was rescued when Union forces attacked Bragg's army, forcing him to retreat. In their haste, they forgot to take their prisoner.

Her spying days were over but the Union made good use of their heroic spy. She toured the country, lecturing on her brief but dramatic career in espionage.

Cushman's post war years were sad ones. Unable to find work as an actress, she supported herself as a seamstress. Doctors gave her morphine when she had an accident and she became addicted. On December 2, 1893, in San Francisco, the once acclaimed Yankee spy died from a drug overdose.

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