This story has it all, my friends—history, war, peace, intrigue, cross-dressing… Cross-dressing? That’s right! Today we’re going to talk about Cathay Williams, also known as William Cathay. Williams had the notable honor of being the first African-American woman to enlist in the U.S. Army. That alone makes this story interesting. The fact that she did it by posing as a man makes this story irresistible!
Born a Slave in Independence
Cathay Williams was born in Independence, Missouri in 1844. Although her father was a free man, her mother was a slave. That meant that Williams’ fate as a slave was sealed. Williams worked for William Johnson, a wealthy farmer. And, of course, when the Johnson family moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, their slaves went with them. Williams worked as a house servant. Her master died and she was passed to his widow. She remained there until the Civil War broke out.
Out of the Fire and into the Frying Pan
At the beginning of the Civil War, in 1861, Union forces occupied Jefferson City, Missouri. Some sources say that the Union Army freed Williams. And, I suppose you can make a compelling argument for that. Hey, she was no longer a house servant. However, it was up to individual commanders to decide what to do with the captured slaves, who were considered contraband. In truth, becoming “contraband” did not mean that a former slave had full freedom. As a female contraband of the Union Army, Williams would have received pay—a whopping $4 a month. But it isn’t as if she had the right to turn down a job with the Union Army.
Here are Williams’ own words from a St. Louis Daily Times article that ran on January 2, 1876:
“ …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. Colonel Benton of the 13th army corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go. He wanted me to cook for the officers, but I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook. I learned to cook after going to Little Rock and was with the army at The Battle of Pea Ridge. Afterwards the command moved over various portions of Arkansas and Louisiana. I saw the soldiers burn lots of cotton and was at Shreveport when the rebel gunboats were captured and burned on Red River. We afterwards went to New Orleans, then by way of the Gulf to Savannah, Georgia, then to Macon and other places in the South. Finally I was sent to Washington City and at the time Gen. Sheridan made his raids in the Shenandoah Valley, I was cook and washwoman for his staff. I was sent from Virginia to someplace in Iowa and afterwards to Jefferson Barracks, where I remained some time.”
Shuffle Off to the Buffalo Soldiers
By the time the Civil War ended, Cathay Williams had learned how to cook. She had also learned that she liked being financially independent. She didn’t want to rely on relatives for support. After weighing her options, she came up with a scheme you would normally expect to see in screwball comedies. She decided to pass as a man and enlist in the U.S. Army!
On November 15, 1866, Cathay Williams became William Cathay and shuffled off to join the Buffalo Soldiers. Cathay informed the recruiting officer that she was a twenty-two-year-old cook. In his notes, the officer described Cathay as 5’9” with black eyes, black hair and a black complexion. Don’t blame the officer for failing to mention that Cathay was a woman. An Army surgeon missed that, too, when he examined Cathay. I’m beginning to think I could have made it as a 19th century Army doctor! She was deemed fit for duty, and the rest is history.
Buffalo Gal, can you come out tonight?
Even though U.S. Army regulations did not allow for the enlistment of women in a peacetime army until 1948, “William Cathay” was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry. Cathy traveled throughout the West with a unit of unsuspecting peers. Only two people knew the truth—Cathay’s cousin and a friend, who were also in her regiment. Her secret was safer with them than the recipe for Bush’s Baked Beans is with that talking dog, Duke!
Even when Cathay contracted smallpox and was admitted to a hospital near St. Louis, her secret was still not discovered. How she got well with medical care that didn’t even take note of her true gender is a mystery, but she did get well! She rejoined her company, which was in New Mexico by that time.
Private Cathay carried her musket and performed her duties, until she no longer wanted to. In the same St. Louis Daily Times interview, Cathay revealed:
“…finally I got tired and wanted to get off. I played sick, complained of pains in my side, and rheumatism in my knees. The post surgeon found out I was a woman and I got my discharge.”
Cathay will receive no judgment from me. Heck, I’ve complained of worse just to get out of playing volleyball in gym class! At the time of her discharge on October 14, 1868, Cathay Williams had served for almost two full years.
The Secret Was Out
Following her time in the military, Cathay Williams moved to Pueblo, Colorado and made her living as a cook and laundress. She had a brief marriage to a man she described as being a “no account.” After he stole her watch and chain, money and team of horses, she had him arrested. That is when she made her way to Trinidad, Colorado where she still planned on making her own way. As she said, “I want to get along and not be a burden to my friends or relatives.”
In 1891, a doctor from the Pension Bureau examined her. Her two years of military service and the fact that her toes had been amputated as a complication of diabetes were not enough to persuade the government that she should receive disability payments. The date of Cathay Williams’ death is unknown, though it is believed to have been sometime in 1892. Over time, the wooden marker on her grave eroded leaving the whereabouts of her burial site a mystery.
At this point, I normally throw out a few pop culture references. Alas, there are no pop culture references regarding Cathay Williams. She hasn’t been the subject of movies or songs. I’m not sure how the public has remained in the dark about her story, but, in a way, I’m glad. Since her story isn’t terribly well known, time hasn’t morphed her into a tall tale and we can still learn about the fact that she was irresistibly human!
Happy Trails, y’all!