Cathay Williams (1844 – 1892), a.k.a. William Cathay, was the first known African American woman to enlist in the United States Army, and the only black woman documented to serve in the US army in the 19th century.
Born a slave in Independence, Missouri in 1844, Cathay worked as a house servant on a nearby plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City.
While I was a small girl my master and family moved to Jefferson City. My master died there and when the war broke out and the United States soldiers came to Jefferson City they took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock. Col. Benton of the 13th army corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go. Cathay Williams
In 1861, the year the American Civil War began, Union forces occupied Jefferson City. During the Civil War, captured slaves were considered contraband and were usually pressed into service supporting the military. Cathay was 17 years old when she was forced to work as a cook and washerwoman for the army. She traveled with an infantry regiment through many states, and was present at the Battle Of Pea Ridge, the Red River Campaign, and served briefly under General Philip Sheridan. She was working at Jefferson Barracks back in Missouri when the war ended in 1865.
After the Civil War, employment opportunities were scarce for many African-Americans, especially in the south. Many of them looked to military service, where they could earn not only steady pay but also education, health care, and a pension. Cathay had a cousin and a friend who enlisted, and she decided that in order to earn a living, she would enlist too.
Women were prohibited from serving in the military at that time, so Cathay disguised herself as a man and switched her first and last names, using the pseudonym William Cathay. Cathay was tall at 5’9” (175 cm) and had no problem enlisting since a medical exam wasn’t required.
Cathay was declared fit for duty on November 15, 1866. She was assigned to Company A of the 38th Infantry, one of four all-black units newly formed that year. Only her cousin and her friend who were enlisted in the same regiment knew her secret.
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 Williams
Cathay’s military career was short-lived. She contracted smallpox soon after enlisting, and was frequently hospitalized in the following years. During all these hospitalizations, her gender was never discovered. Finally, in October of 1868 — almost two years after she enlisted — the post surgeon discovered she was a woman and informed 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 real bad to me. Cathay Williams
Cathay was immediately given a disability discharge. Her commanding officer, Captain Charles E. Clarke, stated that Cathay was “feeble both physically and mentally, and much of the time unfit for duty. The origin of his infirmities is unknown to me.”
At the time she had been stationed in New Mexico territory, so she went to work as a cook in Fort Union, New Mexico under her original name. She briefly married, but the union ended when he stole her money and horses and she had him arrested. Later she moved to Trinidad, Colorado where she became known as Kate Williams. She subsisted on odd jobs as a cook, laundress, and seamstress.
While living in Colorado, Cathay was approached by a reporter from St. Louis. He had heard rumors about the first black woman to serve in the US army, and had traveled to Colorado to interview her. He wrote an article about her life and military service which was published on January 2nd, 1876 in the St. Louis Daily Times.
You see I’ve got a good sewing machine and I get washing to do and clothes to make. I want to get along and not be a burden to my friends or relatives. Cathay Williams
Cathay’s poor health continued even after she left the army: she suffered from neuralgia (at the time a catch-all term for various illnesses) and diabetes. She had several toes amputated due to diabetes, forcing her to use a crutch to get around. She also spoke of suffering from rheumatism and deafness. In 1891, at the age of 47, she applied for a disability pension for her military service.
A handful of women had applied for military pensions before Cathay, most notably Deborah Sampson in 1816. Deborah had influential friends, including Paul Revere, who had helped her fight for her pension. Cathay, however, was on her own. After examining her, the doctor decided she didn’t qualify for disability payments, and her application was rejected.
It’s unknown exactly when Cathay died. She’s not listed in the 1900 census for Trinidad, Colorado. Given her poor health and the fact that she was probably having a hard time financially since she applied for a pension, it’s probable that she died sometime between 1892 and 1900.
There’s no way to know how many women posed as men to enlist during the American Civil War, but it’s been estimated in the hundreds. Many were never discovered, and some were found out only because they required hospital treatments. Cathay is one of the very few women whose enlistment was well-documented&mdasha woman simply trying to earn a living in a difficult time, she never knew she was making a mark on history.
- Cathay Williams. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved May 15, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathay_Williams
- Heroes Among Us: Profiles in Courage: Cathay Williams. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2013, from http://web.archive.org/web/20080616094119/http://www.goarmy.com/bhm/profiles_williams.jsp
- Rand-Caplan, Ramona L. (n.d.). Williams, Cathay (1850- ). BlackPast.org. Retrieved May 15, 2013, from http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aaw/williams-cathay-1850
- Cathay Williams, Female Buffalo Soldier- With Documents. BuffaloSoldier.net. Retrieved May 15, 2013, from http://www.buffalosoldier.net/CathayWilliamsFemaleBuffaloSoldierWithDocuments.htm
Featured image of Cathay Williams courtesy the National Archives, retrieved from BlackPast.org.
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.