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Pauline Cushman

Much of what is known about Pauline Cushman comes from memoirs written to exploit her brief career as a Union spy during the Civil War. She was born in New Orleans, but her family later moved to the frontier town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. At 18, Cushman ran off to New York City to become an actress.

Cushman was appearing in a road show in Union held Louisville, Kentucky, when two paroled Confederate officers offered her $300 to toast Jefferson Davis during her performance. She did, but first she reported the incident to the federal provost marshal, who recognized that this expression of secessionist loyalty would give Cushman entree into Confederate camps and would make her valuable as a Union spy. The theater company fired her for making the toast, and she was "evicted" from the Union lines.

Claiming to be looking for her officer brother, Cushman began following the Confederate army. The actress became the darling of Southern troops, and she gathered information of great value to the advancing Union forces. She was finally captured with compromising papers, taken to the headquarters of Confederate General Braxton Bragg in Shelbyville, Kentucky and sentenced to be hanged within 10 days. Before her execution could be carried out, Union troops invaded the Shelbyville area. Cushman's knowledge of Southern movements and strategies was a great help to Union General William Rosecrans, and President Lincoln awarded her with an honorary major's commission.

Too well known to serve as a spy again, Cushman toured the country dressed in uniform lecturing about her experiences, reportedly embellishing her story with each performance. She then returned to acting in San Francisco. Addicted to opium she had begun taking for an illness, she took her own life on December 2, 1893, with an intentional overdose. The San Francisco Grand Army of the Republic buried her with military honors in its cemetery.

Cushman's tour resulted in The Life of Pauline Cushman, written from her notes by Ferdinand Sarmiento in 1865.