The First African-American Woman To Enlist In The Army and the only female member of the Buffalo Soldiers
Cathay Williams (September 1844 – 1893) was an American soldier who enlisted in the United States Army under the pseudonym William Cathay. She was the first African-American woman to enlist, and the only documented to serve in the United States Army posing as a man.
Williams was born in Independence, Missouri to a free man and a woman in slavery, making her legal status also that of a slave. During her adolescence, Williams worked as a house slave on the Johnson plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1861 Union forces occupied Jefferson City in the early stages of the American Civil War. At that time, captured slaves were officially designated by the Union as "contraband," and many were forced to serve in military support roles such as cooks, laundresses, or nurses. At age seventeen, Williams was impressed into serving the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel William Plummer Benton.
For the next few years, Williams traveled with the 8th Indiana, accompanying the soldiers on their marches through Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia. Cathay Williams was present at the Battle of Pea Ridge and the Red River Campaign. At one time she was transferred to Little Rock, where she would have seen uniformed African-American men serving as soldiers, which may have inspired her own interest in military service. Later, Williams was transferred to Washington, D.C., where she served with General Philip Sheridan's command. When the war ended, Williams was working at Jefferson Barracks.
Despite the prohibition against women serving in the military, Cathay Williams enlisted in the United States Regular Army under the false name of "John Williams" on November 15, 1866 at St. Louis, Missouri for a three-year engagement, passing herself off as a man. She was assigned to the 38th United States Infantry Regiment after she passed a cursory medical examination. Only two others are known to have been privy to the deception, her cousin and a friend, both of whom were fellow soldiers in her regiment.
Shortly after her enlistment, Williams contracted smallpox, was hospitalized and rejoined her unit, which by then was posted in New Mexico. Possibly due to the effects of smallpox, the New Mexico heat, or the cumulative effects of years of marching, her body began to show signs of strain. She was frequently hospitalized. The post surgeon finally discovered she was a woman and informed the post commander. She was discharged from the Army by her commanding officer, Captain Charles E. Clarke on October 14, 1868.
Cathay Williams went to work as a cook at Fort Union, New Mexico, and later moved to Pueblo, Colorado. Williams married, but it ended disastrously when her husband stole her money and a team of horses. Williams had him arrested. She next moved to Trinidad, Colorado, where she made her living as a seamstress. She may also have owned a boarding house. It was at this time that Williams' story first became public. A reporter from St. Louis heard rumors of a female African-American who had served in the army, and came to interview her. Her life and military service narrative was published in The St. Louis Daily Times on 2 January 1876.
In late 1889 or early 1890, Cathay Williams entered a local hospital where she remained for some time, and in June 1891, applied for a disability pension based on her military service. The nature of her illness and disability are unknown. There was precedent for granting a pension to female soldiers. Deborah Sampson in 1816, Anna Maria Lane, and Mary Hayes McCauley (better known as Molly Pitcher) had been granted pensions for disguising themselves as men to serve in the American Revolutionary War.
In September 1893, a doctor employed by the U.S. Pension Bureau examined Cathay Williams. Despite the fact that she suffered from neuralgia and diabetes, had had all her toes amputated, and could only walk with a crutch, the doctor decided she did not qualify for disability payments. Her application was rejected. The exact date of Williams' death is unknown, but it is assumed she died shortly after being denied a pension, probably sometime in 1893. Her simple grave marker would have been made of wood and deteriorated long ago. Thus her final resting place is now unknown.
Cathay Williams, who later altered her name to William Cathay, hid her gender as the nation's only female Buffalo Soldier, as a private from 1866-1868. A bronze bust memorial was dedicated to her Friday afternoon at the Richard Allen Cultural Center & Museum in Leavenworth.
Monument dedicated to Cathay Williams donated to the Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum in July 2016, located in Leavenworth, KS
U.S. Army Pension records for Cathay Williams
(click to enlarge)
National Park Service