Cathay Williams was the name she used in enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1866 since women were prohibited from serving in the military at the time. Disguising herself as a man, Cathay switched her first and last names and successfully sealed her fate in history as the first documented black woman to enlist in the Army.
For two years in the army, she hid her femininity until she was finally discovered by a surgeon.
Born a slave around 1850 in Jackson County, Missouri, Cathay worked as a house servant on a nearby plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City. Union forces later occupied Jefferson City when the American Civil War began in 1861. Slaves that were captured were considered contraband and were often pressed into service supporting the military.
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At 17, Cathay who also became a captured slave was forced into working as a cook and washerwoman for the army. Under this role, she accompanied the infantry through many states and even witnessed a series of battles, including the Red River Campaign and the Battle of Pea Ridge.
She was working at Jefferson Barracks back in Missouri when the war ended in 1865.
After the war, job opportunities for newly freed slaves and African Americans, especially those in the South, were scarce. Thus, many people turned to the military service, where they were assured of not only earning steady pay but also receiving health care, education, and a pension.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Cathay decided to join the military to also earn a living, especially after her cousin and friend had also enlisted.
According to accounts, she told her recruiting officer that she was a 22-year-old cook. He described her as 5′ 9″, with black eyes, black hair and black complexion.
Since the Army did not require full medical exams at the time, Cathay sailed through and was declared fit for duty in November 1866. She was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry, one of four all-black units newly formed that year.
The U.S. Army regulations did not allow the enlistment of women, but without the medical examination, Cathay performed her duties without any suspicion.
“The regiment I joined wore the Zouave uniform and only two persons, a cousin and a particular friend, members of the regiment, knew that I was a woman. They never ‘blowed’ on me. They were partly the cause of my joining the Army. Another reason was I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends,” Cathay said.
During her two-year stint in the military, Cathay primarily performed regular garrison duties.
“Cathay initially served at Jefferson Barracks outside St. Louis and was later posted at Fort Cummings and Fort Bayard in New Mexico Territory. Like other black soldiers stationed at remote western outposts after the Civil War, Cathay endured inadequate supplies and inferior weapons,” writes Blackpast.org.
Her military career was, however, cut short by health challenges. Soon after enlisting, she contracted smallpox and had to be hospitalized on several occasions. Her gender was never found out during these times she spent at the hospital until October 1868, when a post surgeon discovered her real gender and alerted her commanding officer.
“The post surgeon found out I was a woman and I got my discharge. The men all wanted to get rid of me after they found out I was a woman. Some of them acted
She was soon discharged at Fort Bayard on October 14, 1868, on a surgeon’s certificate of disability.
According to National Park Service, she continued with her ‘adventure’ and would sign up with an emerging all-black regiment that would eventually become part of the legendary Buffalo Soldiers. This makes her the only known female Buffalo Soldier.
Cathay subsequently resumed life under her original name as a cook in Fort Union, New Mexico. After a bad marriage, she moved to Trinidad, Colorado, where she lived as Kate Williams and worked as a cook and seamstress.
Her story first came public after an article about her life and military service was published on January 2, 1876, in the St. Louis Daily Times while she lived in Colorado
She still suffered from ill-health, including toe amputations from diabetes, neuralgia, deafness, and rheumatism. This compelled her to apply for a military disability pension but a doctor who examined her concluded that she did not qualify
The exact date of Williams’ death is unknown, but it is estimated to have been between 1892 and 1900.
In 2016, a bronze bust of her, featuring information about her and with a small rose garden around it, was unveiled outside the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, Kansas.
The Private Cathay Williams monument bench was also unveiled in 2018 on the Walk of Honor at the National Infantry Museum.