War Women

     I’m not much of a Civil War scholar.
     In fact, I know very little except a few names, places,  and the ‘over-arching’ themes that led the South to believe they should (and could) secede from the larger nation.
     I know a bit about Reconstruction and Jim Crow Laws, about the medical and photographic advances that were new to the battle fields of war, and the still persistent occasional reference to those of us from the North as Yankees- I have thick skin.
     What I didn’t know (until recently) was the role of women in active combat (not just hospitals)- on the battlefields, shooting rifles, burying landmines, and spying.
     Ben and I recently visited Vicksburg, Mississippi for an overnight business stay. We had some free time, and since the sidewalks roll-up on Sunday (their economy is really hurting), we ventured to the Vicksburg National Military Park, bought a car pass, got some literature and drove around the 16 mile perimeter of the Siege of Vicksburg.
     Wow!
     Long Story Short: Union General Ulysses S. Grant had had enough of the Confederate ‘rascals’ that were impeding the Unions control of the might Mississippi River, so on March 18, 1863, he marched on Vicksburg with a 77,000 strong army and surrounded Confederate Lt. General John C. Pemberton’s force of 33,000.
     For approximately 47 days the Union shot the shit out of the Confederates- until Pemberton surrendered to Grant, on July 4 (no kidding).
     And who do you think cleaned up this mess?
     Why the women, of course.
     But, not just in Vicksburg- oh no.
     Let me introduce you to Harriet Wood (aka: Pauline Cushman) and apologize for the ‘run-on’ sentences that are to follow.
     Born 1833 in New Orleans, the daughter of a  Spanish merchant and and French wine making mother, she was raised in Michigan (Michigan? Really?), returned to New Orleans (we all do) at 18 and married a Confederate musician (Charles Dickinson). She was soon a war widow (maybe he played off-off key?) with two children.
      Harriet made her way to NYC to find fame under the hot lights of Broadway (taking the aforementioned stage name). No such luck.
      She relocated with a group of travelling actors to Louisville, Kentucky and was insulted by Confederate President Jefferson Davis at a performance (He rudely booed. His reputation as a smart ass continues to grow) so she decided to spy for the Union (Bravo!) which she did brilliantly!… until she was shot in the ankle on a battlefield, taken prisoner by the Confederates, imprisoned and sentenced to hang in Shelbyville, Tennessee, but was sprung free by an invasion of Union troops. 
     Whew!
     After the war, Pauline joined P.T. Barnum’s travelling Wild West Show, lost both her children to typhoid in 1868, started drinking, moved to the California Territory giving lectures on her exploits as a spy, married again, (August Fichtner) in 1872, was widowed-again, in 1873, started shooting morphine, married, yet again, in 1879 (Jere Fryer) to the Sheriff of Casa Grande, Arizona Territory, adopted a daughter in 1883, who died in 1889, separated from her husband in 1890, moved back to San Francisco by 1892, lived in poverty,and died of a self-inflicted opium overdose in 1897- penniless- but not forgotten!
     She was buried with full military honors as ‘Major Cushman’ in the Officer’s Circle at the Presidio National Cemetery in San Fransisco, with a simple epitaph…

Pauline C. Fryer
Union Spy

…and one hell of a woman.

PINIMAGE
Pauline Cushman
(1833-1897)

PINIMAGE
Major Cushman
photographed by Mathew Brady
in a soldier disguise
about 1863

   
   
   
   




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