Volume 12, Issue 2
Two Women Who Spied During the American Civil War: Going Undercover with Belle Boyd and Pauline Cushman in the Archive of Americana
Bruce D. Roberts
Bruce D. Roberts, author of Clipper Ship Sailing Cards
In July 1861—just three months after the bombardment of Fort Sumter—unabashed Southern sympathizer Rose O’Neal Greenhow of Washington, D.C., was already engaged in espionage on behalf of the Confederacy. Well-placed in Washington society—and adept at bleeding information from the many men who found her attractive—Greenhow learned that Union troops under General Irvin McDowell would attack Rebel forces in Manassas, Virginia, within days.
Rose got a message via courier to the Confederate commander, General P. G. T. Beauregard, informing him of the Union’s plans. With this advance notice, the Confederates had time to bring up General Joseph Johnston’s troops from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to augment Beauregard’s army. After crossing Bull Run Creek on July 21, McDowell’s men encountered thousands more enemy soldiers than expected. By day’s end, the Confederates had routed the Union forces and sent them into a panicked retreat back toward Washington.
Rose Greenhow was justifiably proud of her intelligence effort, which contributed to a stunning Rebel victory in the first major battle of the war. But this triumph all but guaranteed a long and bloody struggle ahead. A decisive Union victory at Bull Run, followed by a push toward Richmond, the Confederate capital, might have brought the war to a quick end, thus sparing hundreds of thousands from death and disfigurement.
Throughout the American Civil War, both North and South had male and female spies at work. Most were not as successful as Rose Greenhow, but it was not for lack of trying. Here, we’ll chart the course of one woman from each side: Belle Boyd from the South and Pauline Cushman from the North. The Readex Archive of Americana—in particular The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922; Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922; and Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922—offers a wealth of information on the careers of these women. And their careers ran parallel more than once.
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Belle Boyd: Rebel with a Cause
Isabelle Boyd was born on May 9, 1844, in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). A headstrong tomboy, she repeatedly tried her parents’ patience. When the eleven-year-old Belle was told that she was not yet old enough to attend a formal dinner party at the Boyd residence, she planned a dramatic response. Waiting until the dinner was nearing its end, Belle mounted her horse, clopped into the house, and clattered into the dining room. Surveying the astonished guests and her horrified parents, Belle threw out a challenge: “Well, my horse is old enough, isn’t he?”
By July 1861, Martinsburg was already occupied by the North. On July 4, some drunken Union soldiers forced their way into the Boyd home, demanding that any Confederate flags there be surrendered. One soldier in particular cursed and threatened Belle and her mother, Mary. The seventeen-year-old Belle drew her Colt pocket pistol and shot the man point-blank; he died later that day. Shortly thereafter, Union General Robert Patterson questioned Belle, her maid Eliza, and Mary, but decided that Belle was justified in her actions and dropped the matter.
Belle was lucky to escape a murder charge. But she was as proud of this “honor killing” as Rose Greenhow would be two weeks later after First Manassas. The incident cemented Belle’s commitment to the Secessionist cause. In the months that followed, Belle acted as a Confederate courier. She fell under suspicion and was stopped and questioned multiple times, but always inveigled her way out of trouble. In fact, living as she did in Union-held territory, she put her charms to work, extracting military secrets from the soldiers.
The high point of Belle’s spying came in May 1862, just days after her eighteenth birthday. She learned that Union General James Shields would hold a war council in a hotel in nearby Front Royal, Virginia. Belle beguiled Shields’s aide-de-camp, who told her when and where the meeting would be held. Belle hid in an upstairs closet and put her ear to a hole in the floorboards as the plans to trap Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were laid out. Later that night, she wrote down what she had heard, saddled a horse, and galloped through Union lines until she reached the headquarters of Rebel cavalry commander Turner Ashby. After turning her notes over to the astonished Ashby, Belle rode back to Front Royal through a wild thunderstorm.
Just days later, Belle outdid herself. On May 22, she obtained updated information that the Union forces around Front Royal were sparse, and that the other Union troops were not yet close enough to carry out the planned interception of Jackson. When Jackson’s men attacked Front Royal the following day, Belle again charged through the Union lines, this time on foot, drawing Union fire but miraculously staying unhurt. The fortunate Belle made it to Jackson’s front lines and communicated her knowledge, saying that a sustained charge by Jackson would return Front Royal to Confederate control and ruin the Union’s plans.
The next day found Belle in Front Royal, chatting pleasantly with a group of Union soldiers—now prisoners of war, after Jackson’s successful attack.
Belle continued her seamless blend of flirting and spying, although this activity was punctuated by a spell in prison in 1862 and again in 1863. By that point, Belle was well-known in much of the South—and the North, too. Here, a Southern book from 1863 called The Southern Women of the Second American Revolution (Atlanta, Georgia: Intelligencer Steam-Power Press, 1863) quotes a Northern newspaper account of the “egregious” behavior of Belle and her ilk:
1863 is when Pauline Cushman’s time as a Union spy began – and ended.
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Pauline Cushman: In the Moment
Pauline Cushman was born Harriet Wood on June 10, 1833, in New Orleans. A few years later, her family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Harriet grew up a Northerner. Unlike Belle Boyd, there was nothing in Harriet’s childhood to suggest audacious behavior. However, when Harriet was seventeen, she left home and went to New York hoping to become an actress—which she did, finding minor roles in minor plays. In New York she assumed the stage name Pauline Cushman.
In March, 1863, Pauline and her theatrical troupe had an engagement at Wood’s Theater in Louisville, Kentucky. The Bluegrass State had remained in the Union—barely—with Louisville’s populace split evenly between Union and Secesh.
At one point in the play, Seven Sisters, Pauline’s character presented a toast. Knowing this, two paroled Confederate soldiers offered Pauline $300 to modify her lines and toast the Confederacy. Pauline said that she would think about it, but she reported the incident to Colonel Absalom Moore, the Union provost marshal.
Moore saw an opportunity. He explained to Pauline that a dramatic, public salute to the South could ingratiate her with Rebeldom—and create a perfect cover for spying. Moore thus encouraged Pauline to go ahead and make the toast. Doing so might leave Pauline ostracized from Louisville’s Union constituency, but it would cement her seeming Confederate bona fides.
At the next night’s performance of Seven Sisters, Pauline’s moment arrived. Looking straight into the audience, she said loudly and clearly, “Here’s to Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy. May the South always maintain her honor and her rights!” Stunned silence quickly gave way to a cacophony of pro-Southern cheers and pro-Union jeers. Pauline was immediately fired from the production—but instantly welcomed into Louisville Secesh circles. She was ready to spy.
Moore sent Pauline south to Nashville to get instructions from Colonel William Truesdail, chief of the Union Army Police. Truesdail proposed that Pauline become a camp follower and report back on the state of Confederate defenses in central Tennessee. He made sure that Pauline knew the danger involved; if caught, she could well be executed. Pauline accepted the challenge, and contrived a cover story: she would enter Confederate-held territory seeking her brother, a Rebel officer.
The beautiful Pauline was soon conquering the hearts of Southern officers. And, à la Belle Boyd, she was concurrently gathering information on Rebel troop positions.
Pauline was apparently able to move back and forth between Louisville and Confederate camps in Tennessee and Kentucky, and still act on stage. The May 12, 1863, Louisville Daily Democrat advertised Pauline’s appearance that evening in the play The Married Rake at the Louisville Theater:
This was just two months after Pauline’s sensational CSA toast during the Seven Sisters performance at Wood’s Theater. Note the ad for Wood’s in the adjacent column.
Truesdail told Pauline to commit all she saw to memory, and not write any notes or drawings. Perhaps from overconfidence, Pauline ignored this directive, and drew detailed pictures of Confederate fortifications at Tullahoma, Tennessee, and Shelbyville, Kentucky. She also obtained copies of Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s battle plans. She tucked all these documents in her boots.
In late May 1863, Pauline tried to return to Union lines, but aroused suspicion and was arrested. A search quickly revealed her incriminating documents. Bragg questioned Pauline, and was unmoved by her feminine wiles. The evidence clear, Bragg had Pauline held in Shelbyville and tried before a military court.
The court proceedings took ten days, and an increasingly desperate Pauline became ill from stress. Her health and spirits declined further when the court found her guilty and sentenced her to death.
While genuinely ill, Pauline used her acting experience to make herself look much worse off than she actually was. The Confederates postponed her execution until her condition improved.
Meanwhile, the Union Army of the Cumberland under General William Rosecrans was on the move. Rosecrans’s aim was to prevent the Rebels from reinforcing their positions at Vicksburg, Mississippi, which was under siege by General Ulysses S. Grant. The Union advance forced the Rebels to abandon Shelbyville on June 27, 1863. With more important matters at hand, the Confederates pulled out, leaving Pauline behind at the home of a civilian doctor. She was rescued by the advancing Federals just three days before her scheduled execution.
With her cover blown, Pauline's short career as a spy was over. In recognition of her services, Pauline was awarded the rank of Brevet Major by General James A. Garfield and commended by President Abraham Lincoln.
Soon, Pauline was touring the country giving lectures on her exploits as a spy. Now known as Miss Major Pauline Cushman and dressed in the uniform of an army major, she told paying audiences exaggerated stories of her adventures.
Showman P. T. Barnum arranged many of Pauline’s appearances, such as this one advertised in the June 7, 1864, New-York Daily Tribune:
Two days later, the Tribune offered this enthusiastic review of Pauline’s performance at Barnum’s American Museum:
While Pauline played various venues in the North in 1864, the war was still on, and Belle Boyd had one last assignment as an agent for the South.
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Cleopatra of the Secesh
In 1864, despite an increasingly grim picture on the battlefield, the Confederacy still hoped for recognition as an independent country by both England and France. In March, Jefferson Davis accepted Belle Boyd’s offer to deliver some Confederate dispatches to England. From Richmond, Belle traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina, there to board a steamship and attempt to run the Union blockade that was slowly strangling the South.
On May 8, after waiting several weeks for a prospective blockade runner, Belle stepped onto the steamer Greyhound, commanded by Captain George Bier. Just hours after leaving Wilmington, the Greyhound came under fire from the Union ship Connecticut and was forced to surrender. Union Lieutenant Samuel Hardinge assumed took control the Greyhound and set a course for Boston.
That same night, Hardinge led Belle on deck and recited poetry to her. The next night, he asked her to marry him. Belle demurred, telling Hardinge she would give him an answer soon.
Upon the captive Greyhound’s arrival in Boston, Belle managed to distract Hardinge—whom she had indeed decided to marry—long enough to allow Rebel Captain Bier to escape. It was truly a tour de force by Belle, tagged the Cleopatra of the Secesh in Northern newspapers. (Other sobriquets included the Siren of the Shenandoah and La Belle Rebelle.)
By 1865, both of our spies were no longer spying, Pauline of course having completed her stint in mid-1863. But their lives saw further parallels.
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The Women in Print
In 1865, both Belle and Pauline had their stories told in books. Belle was first with Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, published in two volumes in England and as a single volume two months later in the United States. As it was “Written by Herself,” per the title page of the American edition, Belle naturally treated herself to some self-serving and even outlandish exaggeration.
Here is an advertisement for Belle’s memoir, headlined “The Greatest Book Yet!” in the July 3, 1865, New Orleans Times:
As would be expected, reviews of Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison were benign in the South and rather less so in the North. Again from the New Orleans Times, this time July 30, 1865:
From the North, the San Francisco Bulletin disdained Belle in the August 28, 1865, edition:
In mid-1865 came Life of Pauline Cushman, the Celebrated Union Spy and Scout, written by Ferdinand L. Sarmiento. As was commonplace in the day, Sarmiento freely embellishes Pauline’s story. The July 3, 1865, Philadelphia Inquirer ran this ad for Pauline’s biography, headlined “The Great Sensational Book of the Day!”:
Reviews of Pauline’s book prove elusive, but just as a North/South public divide existed for Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, one can be assumed for Life of Pauline Cushman.
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The Women on Stage
With the war ended, Pauline continued performing, teaming for two years with an Irish comedian, James M. Ward. One of their first engagements was at the Washington Theatre, advertised in the May 24, 1865, Daily National Republican:
At this time, the Washington Theatre had been open for only three weeks. Its purpose was to serve as a substitute for Ford’s Theatre, which Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had ordered closed immediately after Lincoln’s assassination. Most of the Ford’s Theatre staff was hired by the Washington Theatre.
Meanwhile, Belle Boyd was studying stagecraft in England, where she was living with husband Samuel Hardinge and their newborn daughter. Belle’s stage debut was on June 1, 1866, at the Theatre Royal in Manchester. The play was The Lady of Lyons; Belle’s character, coincidentally, was named Pauline.
This brief and unflattering mention of Belle’s acting was made in the June 14, 1866, Boston Journal:
Later that year, Belle divorced Hardinge, and returned to the United States with her daughter. Belle resumed her new career as actress, appearing in a variety of roles. Not surprisingly, she was well received in the South, as seen in this September 27, 1867, Memphis Daily Avalanche review:
In 1869, Belle married John Swainston Hammond, a man she had known for all of one month. A son, born in 1870, died in infancy. At about this time, Belle withdrew from acting.
Another son and two daughters were born in the years that followed. Belle and Hammond divorced in 1884; six weeks later, Belle married actor Nathaniel Rue High. Belle was forty, High only twenty-four.
High encouraged Belle to return to the stage, and she did so in 1886 with a new show called The Perils of a Spy. Belle’s two daughters with John Hammond, Byrd and Maria Isabelle, joined the show, and they toured widely.
Belle Boyd died of a heart attack on June 11, 1890. She was fifty-six years old.
Pauline Cushman’s stage career ended sooner than Belle’s. With interest in her lagging in the East, Pauline moved to California in 1872. That same year, she married August Fichtner; he died in less than a year, leaving Pauline widowed for the second time.
By 1876, Pauline was operating a hotel at San Gabriel Mission, advertised here in the October 6, 1876, Los Angeles Daily Star:
Pauline married a third time in 1879, her new husband being Jeremiah Fryer. They lived in Arizona Territory and ran a hotel. Sometime in the 1880s they adopted a daughter, but she died not long thereafter. The girl’s death led to Pauline and Fryer separating in 1890.
Pauline’s last years were miserable. Alone, she moved about, ending up in San Francisco working as a seamstress. She suffered increasingly from arthritis and rheumatism, and became addicted to pain medication. In what was likely a suicide, Pauline Cushman died from a narcotic overdose during the night of December 1-2, 1893, at the age of sixty.
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And, in the End
We’ve drawn parallels between Belle Boyd and Pauline Cushman. Both women were attractive, and by and large had their way with men. Both voluntarily undertook difficult and dangerous undercover assignments to contribute to their respective sides. Both were caught and held prisoner, Belle multiple times.
Both Belle and Pauline had their stories told in books published in 1865, with Belle’s written by herself. Pauline, an experienced actress, returned to the stage after her spying ended; Belle took up thespian arts herself once the war was over. Both women were married three times, with their relationships often turbulent.
Lastly, the espionage carried out by both Belle Boyd and Pauline Cushman did not affect the outcome of the American Civil War. Not even Rose O’Neal Greenhow, or the North’s most effective spy, Elizabeth Van Lew, could claim that. But the efforts of Belle and Pauline, Rose and Elizabeth, and many other courageous, patriotic women of both North and South are not forgotten. Researchers can mine the rich content of the Archive of Americana to help keep it so.