A new cable-TV series started in April—Turn, the saga of espionage in the Revolutionary War. According to press coverage of the series (airing Sundays on AMC), this was the beginning of “the American age of espionage.” Readers of ROT will recall that I, myself, was in that game when I was in the army back in the Cold War, a counterintelligence officer in West Berlin in the first half of the ’70s. (That’s the 1970s, not the 1770s, thank you very much!) I’ve even written about some aspects of that life on this blog from time to time, so you know it’s a topic of interest to me. (For the curious, see “Der Illegale,” 5 July 2009; “Berlin Station,” 19 and 22 July 2009; “The Berlin Wall,” 29 November 2009; “Spook Museum,” 25 March 2010; “Top Secret America,” 17 September 2010; “Berlin Stories: Three SNAFU’s,” 18 August 2012; as well as scattered anecdotes elsewhere.)
Now, when I was active in the world of the stage, I directed a play called The Gift (by Neal Thompson, presented in 1982 at the Process Studio Theatre in New York City), which was about Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, the actor brothers before the event that made John Wilkes infamous. I did some research in preparation for that production, reading about the Booths and the lives of actors in that era, the 1850s and ’60s. It turns out that many of the spies serving both sides of the Civil War were—are you ready for this? . . . actors. Well, theater folk in general, but Wilkes (as he was called by his friends and family) was himself one of them. The Booths were Marylanders, so, like their home state itself, they were split in their allegiances during the War Between the States and while Edwin supported the Union (though he wasn’t an activist), Wilkes was a Confederate sympathizer. Since theater troupes from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line traveled back and forth across the battle front with impunity—actors toured in those days and criss-crossed the entire country as a matter of course—theater people were natural couriers for information about the troops and the circumstances on both sides of the conflict. Actors, of course, were ideal spies since, in addition to their access, they were practiced at dissembling: actors lie for a living, after all. (I won’t get into this here, but that’s one reason some churches disparage actors and the acting profession.) Booth collected intelligence in the North and brought it back to his beloved South on a regular basis, imparting what he learned to the Confederate commanders for whom he was gathering the information.
I don’t know if the American Civil War was the origin of performer-spies, the circumstances having been ideal for the phenomenon to evolve at that time, but it certainly wasn’t the end of it. World War I’s Mata Hari was, famously, a dancer—an “exotic” dancer, to be precise, and we know what that’s code for! (Hari spied for the Germans and was executed in France in 1917 for her activities. But she became a famous symbol of the femme fatale agent—known later, in the world of John le Carré and his fellow espionage novelists, as a “honeypot” or a “honeytrap.” As one TV journalist put it, however: “If your name became historically famous for spying, then you weren’t all that good at spying.”)
There’s also another cable series that demonstrates just how useful the skills of an actor can be for professional spies: The Americans on FX. The undercover Soviet agents in that series, set in the Reaganite 1980s, use elaborate disguises, costumes, accents, and other forms of role-playing to pursue their nefarious aims. (When I decided to get out of the army and go to acting school, a number of people in Berlin commented that that seemed like a big change. “No,” I replied, “it really isn’t. After all, I’ve been playing a role for nearly five years.” Now, when I said that, I was thinking of having played the part of an army officer all that time, but if truth be known, I’d also been playing other parts from time to time. I can’t tell you any more . . . otherwise, I’d have to kill you.)
In any case, I decided it would be an interesting inquiry to look into the incidence of actors and other theater folk in the espionage game during the Civil War (and wherever that research leads). Coincidentally, this topic covers two of my longtime personal interests, so it’ll be fascinating to see where the search takes me.
Espionage, or spying, is the gathering and passing on of information your side wants but the other side doesn’t want you to have. (Counterespionage is the prevention of the other guy from getting the information he wants that you don’t want him to have. That’s what I did in the army.) It’s been going on at least since Moses sent out spies to explore Canaan and Joshua sent agents to Jericho, and the techniques (not to mention technology) have advanced (can you really call it “improvement”?) ever since. Secrecy and dissembling are a big part of what spies and counterspies do, and much of that is . . . well, let’s call it morally questionable. (Oh, what the hell! When I was a spook—that’s what we and others called those of us in the intelligence racket—we used to remind each other frequently that what spies do is basically illegal. Certainly from the other guy’s point of view.) A gentleman may never open another gentleman’s mail, but spies aren’t gentlemen and we do open other people’s mail. We also listen to their phone calls and radio broadcasts, read their e-mails, hack their websites and databases, and do all manner of privacy-violating things. We watch people, follow them, pick through their trash, plant bugs on them, and ask people who know them all kinds of probing and revealing questions. (Let me ask you: Is anyone surprised to hear this? I mean, Is this news to anyone?) And lest you get the wrong idea, we do this to our enemies and adversaries . . . and to our friends and allies. However shocked Angela Merkel and David Cameron might have behaved, everyone knows this goes on; it’s an open secret.
(In a 2011 post on this blog, I wrote about a scene in an old movie, The Big Lift, about the 1949 Berlin airlift:
Anyway, the man tells [Montgomery] Clift that the Russians are spying on the Americans with 20,000 agents in Berlin, and the Americans are spying on the Russians, only with just 10,000 agents. Both sides know that the other side is spying, and that each side also knows that the other side knows. It’s all very absurd, sort of Kafkaesque—but not inaccurate. When I was an intel officer in Berlin in the ’70s, not only were the Russians (and the East Germans, of course) spying on us and we on them, but, obviously, the French and British were also spying on the Russians and vice versa. But the Allies were also spying on each other. And there were spies in Berlin from Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Soviet Bloc countries, all spying on everyone else—including each other. There were even Chinese spies operating in Berlin— countries with no obvious need to be in Berlin. Berlin was espionage-central in that era—the counterpart of, say, Lisbon in WWII. With the possible exception of Saigon, Berlin in the early ’70s may have had more spies per capita than any other place on Earth. It certainly had spies from more countries and agencies than anywhere else. (I’m sure there’s a comedy of errors in this somewhere!)
The first day I reported to our offices . . . I noticed two black Russian sedans parked, one by each exit from the compound. (Russian Moskviches or Volgas were easy to spot: even in the early ’70s, they looked like something preserved from the late ’40s.) I asked about them, and my sponsor told me that they were almost always there, just watching, taking notes and probably photos—and that within an hour of my arrival, the Soviets knew my name, rank, and assignment. [This, by the way, was in the days long before face-recognition software and computer databases —editorial note.] By the same token, I got info copies of the transcripts of the wiretaps from Potsdam, the Soviet military HQ in East Germany.
Now, there are certain skills that are beneficial to spies and agents, especially the clandestine kinds. A facility with languages, especially those spoken in the enemy’s territory, is certainly a big one. My dad, an artillery officer in World War II, was detailed to the Counterintelligence Corps during the Occupation to help interrogate Nazi prisoners because he spoke German. I ended up in Berlin because I spoke English, German, and French and had studied Russian. The people we dealt with in Berlin were Brits (friends), French (friends . . . more or less), Germans (friends in the West, enemies in the East . . . and a few who weren’t entirely sure), and Russkies (enemies), so I sort of had the field covered. The intelligence agents about whom I’m about to write didn’t need to worry about speaking the language of the opposition: accents aside, both sides spoke the same language. (To continue my lesson on espionage jargon, “intelligence” is just another word for information, except that it has some kind of practical—in this case military— application. Industrial intelligence or political intelligence would have other uses. And there’s no need to repeat the old joke about “military intelligence”; I already know it. An “agent” is a euphemistic name for a spy in this case, someone who acts on behalf of a government or organization. A “foreign agent” serves a government other than your own, either overtly, like a trade delegate, or covertly, like . . . well, a spy! Members of almost all U.S. investigative or security organizations, including Military Intel, the one for which I worked, are formally called Special Agents—as you’ve heard on TV, I’m sure. Of course, among ourselves, when we met one another outside the office when we weren’t actually working, we’d hum a bar from Johnny Rivers’s 1966 pop hit “Secret Agent Man.” Spook humor.)
A covert agent would also benefit from a practical knowledge of make-up and disguises like false beards, wigs, even prostheses, as well as the use of different clothing and manners of dress. (In the theater, we call that “costume design.” See where I’m headed?) Another reason I ended up in Germany, though not specifically Berlin, was that since I lived there when I was a teenager, I had a sense of how Germans dressed and could blend in. Americans had a tendency to stand out—like our cars, we were easy to spot on a German street. The ability to adopt different personas—change characters, as it were—is also an extremely useful attribute. Now, who would have those skills, do you suppose? Why, how about . . . an actor?
There are instances of modern-day actors working as spies at one level or another, but one more thing that was unique to the mid-19th century made the actor a truly ideal agent in the Civil War. As I mentioned already, actors then toured constantly. There was no television, no movies, no DVD’s, VCR’s, or DVR’s. To see a play in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, or San Francisco, a troupe of actors had to pack up their costumes and sets, get on a train or a stage coach, and come to your city and perform live. Edwin Booth, Wilkes’s older brother and the most famous actor in America in the last half of the century (he was known as the Prince of Players), played not only in places like Cheyenne, Wyoming, and San Francisco, but traveled to Hawaii and Australia. His appearances in London and on the Continent established him as the first American actor to gain an international reputation. A little thing like a war between the states wasn’t going to stop troupe managers from booking performances in Charlotte, New Orleans, and Savannah, or Boston, Washington, and Baltimore—or prevent the actors from traveling there across the front lines to perform for their fans and paying audiences. And since acting companies had been making these circuits for decades before the war started, no one paid any attention to their passing back and forth, plying their trade. A farmer or miller might raise concerns if he wanted to take a cartload of goods from New Orleans to Philly or Boston to Richmond—that would be supplying war necessities to the enemy—but what harm could a bunch of players in greasepaint do? I mean, really! Running around in tights and ruffles—how dangerous could they be?
Little did they know, those military commanders and border patrols! Given the access to and the social acceptance in the homes and salons of the communities, actors could—and did—observe a lot as they traveled around the country. Unmolested as they returned home to the North or the South, they could seek out the authorities there and impart what they learned or pass along messages from others behind the lines. In a sticky situation at the border or in the camp of the enemy, a quick-thinking actor could bluff his or her way out (unlike poor Mata Hari, who ended on the wrong end of a French firing squad) by improvising a role. Touring, though it was common in the 18th century as well, was much more arduous and by the 20th century, it had begun to fade as a practice, especially for stars, and was increasingly restricted to large cities with bigger theaters and audiences. (New York City also eventually became the established center of theater in the U.S. so that touring no longer became a significant source of an actor’s livelihood. And, of course, the advent of film and, later, TV, further curtailed the practice.)
It all sounds a little like Hollywood make-believe, but much of it actually happened, in one way or another, during the four-year conflict between the American North and South. The stories of some of the spies who worked for both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War are proof of this contention.
John Wilkes Booth (1838-65), the man who eventually fatally shot Pres. Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on 14 April 1865, is probably the most famous actor-spy of the Civil War (and maybe of all time). Politically, he sympathized with the Confederacy and was an open supporter of slavery. In 1859, Booth was a member of the Virginia militia that helped capture the notorious abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, and he witnessed Brown’s execution on 2 December. When the Civil War began, instead of enlisting in the Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee (he’d promised his mother, who’d recently lost her husband, that he’d stay away from the battlefield), Booth became a spy, courier, and blockade-runner for the Confederate Secret Service and used his occupation as an actor as cover to smuggle medical supplies, especially quinine and laudanum, into the South.
As a famous actor (he was the mid-19th-century version of a matinee idol—handsome, dashing, and mustachioed), Booth had more freedom than most to travel around unquestioned. The name Booth—not only his brother Edwin, but his brother Junius Brutus, Jr., and his father, Junius Brutus, Sr., were famous and popular actors—opened doors to society homes all across the Union. Booth certainly also used the theatrical touring circuit, which included theaters in Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and other cities of the North, as a way to meet with other Confederate agents and operatives in the North and South, as well as “Copperheads,” Southern sympathizers in the North. Booth’s sister Asia, to whom he was a hero, recorded in her memoir, The Unlocked Book, that “strange men called late at night for whispered consultations.” In fact, he told his sister how he moved among Union troops and, in the most distinguished Northern society, gathered intelligence. He reportedly confessed that he thought he was made for spying: his brains, he asserted, were worth twenty men, his money worth a hundred, and most useful of all, his profession and his fame gave him unfettered access.
Booth joined a spy ring known as the Knights of the Golden Circle which operated between Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, and Montreal, Canada. On many occasions during the war, Booth was known to have had secret meetings with Confederate operatives in hotel rooms in the North and in Canada, and to have left those meetings with sums of cash. In addition to the drugs smuggled from Canada through the Union lines into the South, the Knights established a clandestine mail route. (The Knights also may have been largely responsible for fomenting the Draft Riots in New York City in 1863, setting ablaze many blocks of Manhattan.)
There’s little doubt, too, that the conspiracy of which Booth was part to kidnap Lincoln—a plot which preceded the assassination but was abandoned—was the work of the organized Confederate Secret Service rather than a rag-tag band of zealots. After the assassination of the president, Booth’s thwarted escape plans made considerable use of the secret underground routes and way stations by which the CSS had transported people, information, and goods back and forth to the North during the hostilities. Of course, as we all know, Booth’s career as a spy and Confederate agent ended badly. The Union army was on his trail immediately after the shooting at Ford’s and he was surrounded in a tobacco barn near Port Royal, Virginia, and, refusing to surrender, shot to death on 26 April 1865 at the age of 26. He was buried in an unmarked grave until, in 1869, his remains were turned over to the Booth family who reburied him in the family plot in Baltimore. His given names don’t appear on the marker, just the family name, “Booth.”
Other less-well-known actors also served the Confederacy as spies. Henry Thomas Harrison (1832-1923), known just as “Harrison” because so little was known of him for more than a century, served as an agent for Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Harrison, a Tennessean whom Longstreet described as a “slender, wiry fellow about five feet eight,” wasn’t offered many substantial acting roles because of his small stature. It’s uncertain how much work as an actor Harrison got, but historians suggest that any skills he had were put to good use. He may, however, have had the most impact on the progress of the war of any of the actor-spies about whom I learned.
In May 1861, he enlisted as a private in the 12th Mississippi Infantry. By November, Harrison had been discharged from the militia for “medical reasons” and became a spy for Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon; by April 1863, he’d met General Longstreet and began providing him with such valuable information on Federal troop movements that the general paid him in Union gold or cash to keep him loyal. (Harrison was paid $150 each time he showed up, the equivalent of about $2,800 today.) The “scout” was once even arrested in 1863 by Union forces in North Carolina for watching from a distance, but he was released for lack of evidence that he was actually working for the Confederacy. (In Civil War parlance, a scout was an agent or spy wearing the uniform of his own army. If an agent is caught by the enemy in the other side’s apparel, civilian or military, he is liable to summary execution as a spy. There were no women in uniform—officially—in the 1860s, so, of course, female agents were always under threat of death if caught.) In a Century Magazine article in 1887, Longstreet wrote that Harrison had provided him “with information more accurate than a force of cavalry could have secured.”
On the night of 28 June 1863, Harrison sped to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, arriving “filthy and ragged, showing some rough work and exposure,” and told Longstreet that the Union forces were centered on Frederick, Maryland, and were moving north under Gen. George Meade, who had replaced Gen. Joseph Hooker. Longstreet was troubled by this news because the Confederate troops were dispersed along a broad front in central Pennsylvania so he sent Harrison to Gen. Robert E. Lee the next night. Lee, who’d never heard of Harrison before, relied on his intelligence because Longstreet had vouched for his accuracy—and Lee halted his entire army and redirected it to the area near Gettysburg, thus assuring that the famous Battle of Gettysburg would take place on 1-3 July, a turning point of the Civil War.
After the historic battle, Harrison stayed with Longstreet’s army waiting for something for him to do, finally asking for leave to go to Richmond for a time. The general’s aide happened to be in the Confederate capital some weeks later and found Harrison, apparently drunk, playing Iago in a production of Othello. Discovering that the scout had been drinking and gambling heavily, the aide reported this to Longstreet, who felt Harrison was a security risk and paid him off for his services. Harrison married and moved to New York City for the remainder of the war and operated there and in Washington as an agent for the Confederacy, but none of his intelligence ever came up to the level of significance as that which he provided Lee at Gettysburg.
After the war, Harrison’s life became troubled and peripatetic—and he never seems to have returned to the stage. He, his wife, and daughter moved to Mexico in 1865, but in 1866, his marriage in trouble, Harrison left to prospect for gold in Montana Territory near Helena. From 1867 to 1892, Harrison seemed to have fallen off the map and his wife, assuming he’d died, later remarried. In 1893, however, Harrison turned up in Cincinnati and in 1901, got a job there as a detective. An attempt to reconnect with his family in 1900 met with rejection, though some letters were exchanged. Eleven years later, he moved to Covington, Kentucky, and applied for a Confederate pension, stating in his application only that he was a Confederate veteran but never mentioning his dramatic service as a spy for Seddon, Longstreet, and Lee. On 28 October 1923, Harrison died destitute in Covington at the age of 91. He was buried in an unmarked grave, registered only as “Harrison,” because Longstreet, who alone knew his full identity, had died in 1904 without revealing who his “scout” was. The Department of Veterans Affairs placed a headstone on Harrison’s grave in 2003 after his full identity was discovered in 1986.
Ironically, there was another Confederate spy with the same family name as Longstreet’s scout, and he, too, was an actor. In fact, some accounts of the events of 28-29 June 1863 assert that “Harrison” was James Harrison (1834-1913), but this is a case of mistaken identity— engendered, of course, by the secrecy in which Henry Thomas Harrison’s identity was wrapped. (There are nevertheless current Civil War histories that identify the scout who informed Longstreet and Lee about the Union troop movements on the eve of Gettysburg as James Harrison even though it’s pretty conclusive it was H. T. Harrison.) James Harrison was a better-known actor, an associate of Edwin Booth (older brother, as noted, of John Wilkes Booth). James Harrison, who was from Richmond (and should also not be confused with James E. Harrison, a Confederate general from South Carolina and Mississippi), is alternately characterized as an itinerant actor and a Shakespearean actor, but all actors at the time moved from town to town and theater to theater and any serious player had to master the Bard to earn a living. (There were no rep companies and the long run of one show at a single theater didn’t occur for another generation. Before New York was established at the U.S. center of theater, there were important theaters in many cities where actors traveled to perform. Shakespeare was almost always on the bill.) It was difficult for an actor to make a living in one town all of his or her career, but James Harrison performed regularly in Richmond and, in April and May of 1863 alone, had been booked to appear in 14 different plays there. Apparently there’s not much record of this Harrison’s espionage work, possibly because much of the Confederacy’s records were destroyed at the end of the war or maybe because James Harrison was confused with Henry Thomas Harrison and wasn’t really involved in espionage. (It may also partly be the result of the fact that there were literally scores of soldiers named James Harrison in the armies of both sides and any extant records are hard to sort out.) He was reportedly an officer, but his rank is unknown, and he operated in Washington, and maybe other Northern cities, but his activities aren’t recorded (or the records have been lost or destroyed).
Pauline Cushman (1833-93), one of many women who worked in espionage, was a professional actress when the war broke out. Born Harriet Wood in New Orleans but raised with her seven brothers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, her father ran a trading post on the Chippewa reservation. The Indians taught her to ride horses, shoot, stalk the woods, and fight like a man, and she got plenty of practice romping with her brothers in the forest. She returned to New Orleans in 1851 to join New Orleans Varieties, a performance group, and later traveled to New York where she took the stage name Pauline Cushman. While appearing (in a male role) in a popular comedy called Seven Sisters (by Thomas Blades de Walden) at Wood’s Theatre in Louisville, two local Southern sympathizers (Kentucky was a “border state” but had decided Southern leanings) offered to pay Cushman $300 (about $3,600 today) to toast Confederate president Jefferson Davis during a performance. She decided to curry favor with the Rebs by making the toast: “Here’s to Jefferson Davis and the Southern Confederacy. May the South always maintain her honor and her rights!” The theater manager fired her, but she’d already offered her services to the Union army as a spy. Capitalizing on her beauty and allure, she fraternized with Confederate commanders in Kentucky and Tennessee to gain access to military documents and plans, which she concealed in her shoes to spirit away to her Northern handlers.
Cushman also disguised herself as a backwards country boy or a young gentleman to eavesdrop on conversations at the billiard parlors and other places where women weren’t allowed. At night, she’d ride through the countryside and observe the deployment of Confederate troops, using the skills she’d picked up in Michigan as a tomboy with seven brothers. Cushman had another card to play as well: one of her brothers was a Confederate officer whom she hadn’t seen in years. Searching for him was a perfect excuse for her to be asking questions about personnel and units in the area.
At one point, however, Cushman was caught with secret documents, arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to hang. Using her acting skills, she feigned illness as a delaying tactic in the hopes she could find a way to escape, until 27 June 1863, three days before her final execution date, when the North invaded Shelbyville, Tennessee, where she was imprisoned. The Rebels retreated, leaving Cushman behind. History records that she returned to the South to continue her espionage work disguised as a male officer (one of the Rebel officers with whom she “fraternized” had had one made up for her), facial hair and all. The actress-spy was commended by President Lincoln himself and awarded the honorary rank of Brevet Major. (“Brevet” was a military designation, no longer used, that indicated the rank was temporary.) For her exploits, the actress was known as “Miss Major Cushman” and went on tour, in the Union uniform given to her at her honorary commissioning, after the war lecturing about her life as a spy. She was later even presented by P. T. Barnum, who called her the “greatest heroine of the age.”
Cushman’s life in the years after the war was full of tragedy—failure in her return to the stage; serial marriages; the deaths of her children, a stepchild, and a couple of husbands; widowhood; poverty; toil at menial work to survive; disabled by rheumatism and arthritis. She traveled about the country, moving to California where she ultimately settled in a San Francisco boarding house. Addicted to pain medication, Cushman took an apparently intentional overdose of morphine on 1 December 1897 and was found dead at the age of 60 by her landlady the next morning. Buried in the military cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco under her last married name, her headstone reads: “Pauline C. Fryer, Union Spy.”
[I continue the survey of spies with connections to the theater in Part 2, to be posted on 28 May. I’ll be recounting the stories of some spies who, though they weren’t professional actors, used thespian skills to further their espionage activities. There are also several spies who turned to the acting profession after the war, and one surprising rarity about which I won’t say anything here. Come back to ROT later in the week to find out what I mean—and to read the rest of the collected stories of Civil War spies with a penchant for theatrics.]