Along the sloping green hills of the San Francisco National Cemetery at The Presidio, marble rows mark generations of sacrifice. Heroes lost during WWI, WWII, the Spanish American War and the Civil War lay side by side in eternal rest.
It is hallowed ground.
When the wind sweeps off San Francisco Bay and slips through the eucalyptus trees that stand at attention along the edge of the graveyard, there is a sense that souls mingle here.
This is a Carte de Visite of Pauline Cushman, as Pauline C. Fryer was more popularly known.
As film processing developed, mass production of images became affordable. These little portraits served as calling cards and collectible souvenirs. They were all the rage in the mid-1860's. Browse through the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery website to see 100's of them. While you're there... The National Portrait Gallery's current exhibit (through March 2022) is called Storied Women of the Civil War. Pauline Cushman is featured as one of those storied women. This carte de visite of Pauline was published in 1864, the same year Miss Major Cushman begins appearing at P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York City sharing stories of her adventures as a Union scout and spy to adoring audiences.
Barnum placed this ad promoting the appearance of Miss Maj. Pauline Cushman, The Brave Union Spy & Scout. Books of her thrilling adventures and Carte de Visites available for sale in the museum at 25 cents each.
So who is this Pauline Cushman? Good question. The most referenced source - until only recently - is this one: Life of Pauline Cushman, the Celebrated Union Spy and Scout: Comprising Her Early History, Her Entry into the Secret Service of the Army of the Cumberland, and Exciting Adventures with the Rebel Chieftains and Others While Within the Enemy's Lines ... the Whole Carefully Prepared from Her Notes and Memoranda [written by her friend,] Ferdinand Sarmiento, first published in 1865.
A loquacious read filled with fantastic stories and uncited biographical details about Pauline Cushman.
Which is too bad. Because Pauline is a real person, an intriguing and fiercely independent historical figure.
Yet this conspired account seems to raise doubt of her legitimacy.
Do Sarmiento's praises go too far? Are Cushman's fables too grand?
The marketing of Pauline Cushman, celebrated Union spy and scout put "Miss Major" in the history books, which was the plan. Pauline craved immortality. Yet it's the mere mortal in her that is most compelling.
Born Harriet Wood in New Orleans (maybe) in March 1833 (or maybe May or maybe June), Pauline tours as an actress, marries a musician she meets on the road, has two children and is widowed early into the Civil War. To earn a living she turns again to touring, leaving her children with family. It seems Pauline feels most comfortable in the saloons and theater districts of the cities where she fraternizes with ease, playing to the national divide with skilled duplicity.
A natural showman. And that's why her story is tricky.
photo credit Pauline Cushman: Spy of the Cumberland by William J. Christen, Cover Art
Enter William J. Christen who has spent over 13 years rooting out previously unexplored material to curate a timeline of Pauline Cushman's life, producing what has become the essential source on the subject with his impressively cited book Pauline Cushman: Spy of the Cumberland (Edinburgh Press, 2006)
With its publication the reiterated versions of the Sarmiento stories which have been adopted as fact over the last 150 years are being re-examined.
Bill Christen's research cuts through the outward appearance Pauline worked so hard to project to reveal deeper dimensions of this flawed and fascinating woman.
Glaring in these discoveries is A TREASONABLE TOAST the story Miss Major Cushman retells nightly at Barnum's museum and prints widely in circulated pamphlets illustrating her entrance into the spy trade when she raised a glass to Jefferson Davis during a stage performance in Louisville, Kentucky as a winning ploy to gain Confederate trust. It seems this dramatic turn may be less than true.
Some artistic license may have also been taken in regard to her stealing a young man's uniform and masquerading as a rebel soldier. And perhaps her sentence to death by hanging and subsequent 11th hour rescue during the pivotal Battle of Shelbyville, plays to the drama more than the actual storyline.
In a way, these revelations make her renown even more important than the accounts she conjures up for eager ticket holders.
Survival by self-promotion. Same model as today. Different messenger, maybe. We often think of women in the Victorian age as measured and well-behaved. Pauline is neither. She is spontaneous and gutsy. And seemingly lives without apology.
Pauline successfully controls her destiny despite the profound gender repression of her time.
The fact is there were many women who actively served both sides during The Civil War.
It comes as no surprise that many of these records have been lost or were never actually documented so it's impossible to say how "successful" a spy and scout Pauline Cushman actually was during her short tour of duty in the secret service. The story lies afterward. Pauline leaves behind scant personal affects beyond her scrapbook of newspaper clippings. But in these, reviews reveal her appeal and commitment to the unity of our young country.
Her appearances rally the Union troops. She tells stories of bravery and reminds the crowd why we fight:
To preserve the founding principles set forth in the US Constitution: Justice, Tranquility, Welfare and Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our Posterity. What begins as an opportunity for self-preservation, I like to believe, becomes a mission of right and wrong.
Brevit-Major Pauline Cushman continues to tour her program of brave tales from the front for several years, teaming up with a talented young Irishman, James M. Ward whose rising star guides him to New York while Pauline chases her acclaim across the country aboard the newly completed Transcontinental Railroad.
William Christen tracks the towns as our heroine heads to the New West. From St. Louis, MO through Virgina City, Nevada, Pauline banks on her renown. though her tactics seem to become desperate, her tales taller as interest in re-hashing the woes of the Civil War wanes.
By the time she arrives in San Francisco, the venues hosting her performances have shifted from theaters to dance-halls to backrooms of saloons.
In San Francisco she marries and shortly afterward widows again, She becomes a successful hotelier - as well as a notorius neighbor - in Santa Cruz, moves to LA and runs another hotel/bar, where she meets and marries a cowboy, travels with him to the Arizona Territory and again runs a hotel/bar until their divorce. Pauline eventually makes her way back to San Francisco where in Dec, 1893 at age 60, Pauline C. Fryer nee Harriet Wood dies in virtual anonymity of an opium overdose.
Whether intentional or accidental - in pure Pauline fashion - is left to eternal debate.
From Pauline Cushman: Spy of the Cumberland by William J. Christen:
"During [her final] twenty years [Pauline] spent little time in front of any footlights, yet she remained the focus of her own great drama."
image source Miss Major cast shadowbox workshop, Lea Gulino
*** I first became captivated with Pauline after reading about her a few years ago off a sun-faded display in the officer's circle at the National Cemetery and resolved to share her story - whatever that story may be - in the form of a musical.
Why a musical? At the time, I wasn't certain why I was so certain that her message should be delivered as a musical but after reading and researching, I now know. Musicals embody the gaeity, spectacle, charm and wit that served Pauline throughout her life.
But back to - whatever that story may be -
Thank you for following along with me while I put together my thoughts about Miss Major. As I work toward finishing the first draft, it has become impossible to ignore the political parallels of our current times with the Civil War days of Pauline's age. I am moving forward with humility and respect toward the task at hand, while taking a cue from Pauline to be bold. with no apologies necessary.