Cathay Williams (1844-1892?) was the first documented African American woman to enlist and serve in the United States Army. She was born in Independence, Missouri. Her father was free, but her mother was a slave, which meant that she was a slave too. She worked as a house servant for a wealthy famer, William Johnson, and when she was still young, they moved to Jefferson City. When the Civil War broke out, Union soldiers, led by Col. William Plummer Benton, came to Jefferson City and took Williams and other slaves to Little Rock, forcing them to work as cooks, laundresses, or nurses. As a cook for the Union she witnessed soldiers burn cotton to the ground, she was present at The Battle of Pea Ridge, and she also served as a cook and washwoman in Washington, D.C. for General Philip Sheridan’s staff around the time that he made his raids in the Shenandoah valley.
It could be said that after seeing all the action around her, she was inspired to enlist. Some believe that she was inspired by stories she may have heard in D.C. of other woman who served in the army despite women being prohibited from doing so. She, herself, when recounting her story to the Saint Louis Daily Times in 1876, said that she wanted to make her own living, and not be a burden on family and friends. Whatever her inspiration, on November 15, 1866, in Saint Louis, Missouri, she enlisted in the 38th United States Infantry Company A—an all black army regiment under the command of the white, Capt. Charles E. Clarke—passing as a man by the name of William Cathay (hmmm, very original!). Only two people knew of her true identity. A cousin and a close friend. Both served alongside of her.
She served for about two years and was then discharged, either after she was discovered to be a woman, or for health issues. Some sources say the U.S. army never discovered that she was a woman, yet she said that the army did. In her own words, courtesy of the Saint Louis Daily Times: “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.” Whether or not they really discovered her true sex, I find it amazing that she was able to pass as a man for so long. Her recruiting officer described her as 5′ 9″, with black eyes, black hair and black complexion. The Army surgeon “examined” her and determined that she was fit for duty. She was hospitalized at least five times for smallpox and other ailments, yet each of these men failed to notice that she lacked a third leg, or that her chest was not as flat as the other soldiers.
Not much is known about Cathay Williams after her discharge from the army. She was denied a disability pension—probably because she was black—despite being diabetic and having all of her toes amputated. She might have died shortly after being denied that pension in 1892, though there’s no information on how or when she died nor is there information on where she was buried. Possibly, and this is just me being optimistic here, she became a hero somewhere else, despite all the odds against her.
Wherever you are, Cathay Williams, we salute you!