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Special Report
Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Confederate spy (The Granger Collection, NYC)

Women Spies of the Civil War

Hundreds of women served as spies during the Civil War. Here’s a look at six who risked their lives in daring and unexpected ways

Pauline Cushman, Union Spy

Pauline Cushman
(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Born in New Orleans, Pauline Cushman was a struggling 30-year-old actress in 1863. While performing in Louisville, Kentucky, she was dared by Confederate officers to interrupt a show to toast Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. Cushman contacted the Union Army’s local provost marshal and offered to perform the toast as a way to ingratiate herself to the Confederates and become a federal intelligence operative. The marshal agreed, and she gave the toast the next evening.

The Union immediately sent Cushman to federally occupied Nashville, where she began her work with the Army of the Cumberland. She gathered information about enemy operations, identified Confederate spies and served as a federal courier before she came under suspicion by the Confederates and was arrested. She was sentenced to hang but was saved by the unexpected arrival of Union forces at Shelbyville. Because of the attention she received, Cushman was forced to stop her work.

After the war, Cushman tried acting again and gave monologues on the war, sometimes while wearing a uniform. As the public’s interest in Cushman faded, she supported herself as a seamstress but became addicted to morphine after an illness. She died of an overdose at the age of 60 and was buried with military honors by the Veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic in their cemetery in San Francisco.

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