On November 15, 1866, Cathay Williams became the first African-American female to enlist and serve in the United States Army. She went by the name “William Cathay” as it shows on the application above.
Born into Slavery
Cathay Williams was born in Independence, Mo. in September of 1842. Her mother was a “slave” and her father was a “free man of color.” She fled her master’s plantation in Jefferson City in 1861, seeking the protection of the Union troops occupying the city.
Pretended To Be a Man
Cathay Williams had to pretend to be a man to enlist into the United States Army. An army surgeon examined William Cathay upon enlistment, and determined that the recruit was fit for duty. The exam may not have been thorough, checking for obvious and superficial impairments or abnormalities, or the surgeon kept the fact Cathay was female to himself. It seems highly unlikely anyone was aware of her gender, because 19th century U.S. Army regulations forbade the regular enlistment or commissioning of women.
he Was a Buffalo Soldier
Williams was assigned to Company A of the 38th U.S. Infantry, one of six infantry regiments and two cavalry regiments of black soldiers deployed in the post-Civil War Indian campaigns in the West. In these were the heroic buffalo soldiers. Williams’ company, however, never saw direct combat during her period of service. During her two year stint in the military, Williams primarily did regular garrison duties.
Others Followed Her Lead
More than 400 women posed as male soldiers during the Civil War—most enlisted with their husbands, brothers or other family members. However, it is unknown if any other women served in the military during the Indian Wars like Cathay Williams.
Discharged Because of Illness
Because she was frequently hospitalized due to strain and smallpox, the post surgeon discovered that Cathay Williams was a woman. He reported this information to the post commander and on October 14, 1868 Captain Charles Clarke discharged her honorably from the military.
Never Received Pension
Though other women who disguised themselves as men were granted military pensions (Molly Pitcher and Deborah Sampson), Cathay Williams was never approved to receive a pension or disability even though she suffered from diabetes, had all her toes amputated and could only walk with a crutch.
Post-War Life Unknown
Cathay Williams’ life after the military and after she was denied a pension is primarily unknown, and most scholars think she died sometime between 1892 and 1900.
source: atlantablackstar.com by