n light of the success of Charles Wesley Alexander’s dime novels about glamorous female soldiers, it is not surprising that the narrative of actress Pauline Cushman promises readers an experience akin to reading popular fiction. A secret agent for the Union Army, Cushman won the trust of Confederates when she toasted Jefferson Davis from a Louisville stage. The title of her narrative gives the substance, as well as the flavor, of her autobiography: The Romance of the Great Rebellion; the Mysteries of the Secret Service; a Genuine and Faithful Narrative of the Thrilling Adventures, Daring Enterprises, Hairbreadth Escapes, and Final Capture and Condemnation to Death by the Rebels, and Happy Rescue by the Union Forces, of Miss Major Pauline Cushman.
Cushman was a spy, not a soldier on the battlefield. Nonetheless, her gun was important to her for symbolic as well as practical reasons. As Cushman reports, her boss in the Secret Service, Colonel Truesdail, “gave me a thoroughly serviceable six-shooter.”[i] Yet she does not use it to kill her captors, though she is sorely tempted: “My rough companion rode on in front, quite carelessly, and time and again my hand was on the pistol I carried in my pocket. One good shot, and my reckless companion would trouble me no more, and my escape rendered almost certain. At length I had made up my mind to the fearful venture, when, just at the decisive moment, the Scout turned his face towards me and made some friendly remark. That, probably saved his life, for I was a cool, safe shot” (23). Cushman, though she toys with the idea from time to time, never shoots anyone. In fact, she writes that she preferred to rely on her “pocket pistol,” “a good canteen full of the ‘raal stuff’”(31, Cushman). However, when captured by the Confederate General Bragg, and anxious to prove her loyalty to the Southern cause, she tells him that “should a doubt or suspicion still linger in your mind, give me a place in battle near you, and you will see me fight as vigorously and faithfully as any soldier in your army” (41, Cushman). Her pistol, though she did not actually use it, played a symbolically important role in her self-representation: it gave her the more distinguished aura of a soldier, and served to remove from her the taint of the spy.
Cushman, as an actress, had little claim to respectability. Moreover, the fact of her French and Spanish ancestry furnished her with an identity that, by the definitions of her era, was not quite white. An authorized biography published the year after her memoir appeared, Life of Pauline Cushman, authored by F.L. Sarmiento, provides a vivid example of how a woman skirting the edge of respectability might reclaim her claim to virtue through service as a female soldier—an updated version, perhaps, of Lucy Brewer, the fictional prostitute turned marine.
Throughout the text, Sarmiento has some difficulty in packaging Cushman as a role model. He describes her early move from the city of New Orleans, a place where racial and ethnic boundaries seem blurred, to the pioneer town of Grand Rapids, where “None could shoot the rifle more unerringly than she.”[ii] There, though she associates for the most part with Indian children, Sarmiento makes clear that Cushman remains unambiguously white. A young brave falls in love with her, since “The maidens of his tribe pleased him no more. Their skins were dusky. In them flowed not the same blood that filled the veins of the daughter of the white man”(27). However, Cushman rebuffs him, telling him that to him “it is left to sound on savage majesty through the clifts and rugged peaks of nature; but the ‘Laughing Breeze’ [Cushman’s Indian nickname] is the breath of civilization. The Indian and the ‘pale face’ cannot mingle”(31).
Sarmiento insists most strenuously on Cushman’s respectability when he describes her move to New York, and her ability to withstand the erotic temptations of the theater world in which she finds herself. He makes it clear that she is no ordinary actress: “Pauline Cushman was born an actress--but with the world for her stage--with the bloody drama of war as her piece, and her part that of a heroine whom future generations should look up to with wonder”(51). Indeed, Sarmiento has Cushman exclaim, “Let the spirit which burned in the breasts of Joan of Arc and the Maid of Saragossa be mine”(64). Throughout her career of cross-dressing, spying, nearly murdering her captors, and stealing and lying when necessary, Sarmiento takes care to assure his readers that they should associate with Cushman none of “the obloquy which seems to attach to the very name of ‘spy’”(122). Sarmiento even has General Morgan, when he captures her, but before he has become convinced of the charges against her, give her a “splendid silver-mounted pistol” and tell her that “”We will then show the world what a female soldier can do; for, by heaven you are more of a soldier than half of my men”(250).
She is more of a soldier, perhaps, than most men, but above all more of a true woman than most women.
She is more of a soldier, perhaps, than most men, but above all more of a true woman than most women. Finally, Sarmiento tells us, Cushman becomes an exemplar of female patriotism. “[I]t is from soldiers’ wives, soldiers’ mothers, daughters and sweethearts that she has been hailed as a sister, and taken by the hand as a friend”(358). In fact, “we might say that she has become an apostle of womanhood in these degenerate days, when women are too much of the lady and too little of the wife or mother”(367). Of course, Cushman is neither wife nor mother. “We wanted some such type of true womanhood to exhibit to these dolls of fashion, while we teach them that it is neither unladylike nor inelegant to serve one’s country, or to overstep the ordinary rules of conventionalism in behalf of our glorious Union and its brave supporters”(368). Sarmiento even quotes a letter Cushman receives from a “sister-soldier” who has fought at Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg—“written with a true woman’s heart”(363).
In other words, Cushman’s noble deeds as a spy—redefined as those of a soldier—end up by cleansing her of the taint that attaches itself not just to spies but to actresses and to women who are not-quite-American. In Sarmiento’s portrait she is able to benefit from the Indian skills she has learned from her childhood friends, while remaining white. As he writes, “Her rambles with the bold Indian youths and lasses had given her this unusual strength and quickness”(279) that enables her spying. Even her characteristic gesture, one which “seemed to say, What I have once promised I will perform” is linked to this: “There were many of the Indian associations of her youth still clinging to Pauline Cushman, and the action was full of the dignity of the forest and its red-skinned denizens”(113). Sarmiento’s success in redefining Cushman as an armed patriot was remarkable. His biography of her was reprinted in many editions, and Cushman toured the country reenacting her exploits.