This Once-Enslaved Woman Disguised Herself as a Man to Enlist in the U.S. Army

Cathay Williams was inspired to join the U.S. Army during her time pressed into service in the Civil War.

cathay williams
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Members of the Armed Forces will be familiar with the term "contraband.". In basic training, it was civilian clothing. On deployment, it was alcohol. For the Union soldiers that occupied Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1861, contraband referred to the enslaved people they captured during battle or reconnaissance.

Those men, women, and children were pressed into service as cooks, laundresses or nurses to support the Union war effort. Among these captured was 17-year-old Cathay Williams, who worked as a cook and washerwoman and eventually, as a soldier.

In September 1844, Williams was born in Independence, Missouri, to a free man and an enslaved woman. As according to the law of the day, her mother's status as enslaved was passed down to Williams. Her enslavement bound her to the Johnson Plantation, just outside of Jefferson City, Missouri until she and other slaves of the plantation were captured by Union forces.

Related: 7 Facts About Black Women Who Shaped History

Williams spent five years pressed into service under General Philip Sheridan and accompanied the infantry on campaigns around the country, including the Red River Campaign, the Battle of Pea Ridge, and the Shenandoah Valley Raids in Virginia. Her extensive travels during the war influenced her decision to enlist afterwards.

On November 15, 1866, Williams enlisted in the 38th Infantry Regiment ("Rock of the Marne"). Because women were prohibited from military service, Williams disguised herself as a man and enlisted under the name "William Cathay". At the time, the Army did not perform full medical examinations on enlistees, so Williams was able to maintain her cover.

Only two people in the regiment, a cousin, and a friend, knew Williams's true identity. "They never blowed on me," Williams said. "They were partly the cause of me joining the Army. The other reason was I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends."

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cathay williams
  • U.S. Army Pension records for Cathay Williams.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Williams was able to keep her secret despite a case of smallpox shortly after her enlistment. After her hospitalization, Williams was able to rejoin her unit at Fort Bayard in the New Mexico territory, helping to secure the construction of the transcontinental railroads.

However, a case of neuralgia sent her to the post surgeon who uncovered Williams's secret and reported her to the post commander. On October 14, 1868, she received an honorable discharge with the legacy of being the first and only female Buffalo Soldier.

Williams went on to work as a cook, laundress, and part-time nurse in New Mexico and Colorado. Years later, her declining health led to a hospitalization from 1890 to 1891. In June 1891, Williams applied for a military disability pension. A doctor concluded that she did not qualify, and the Pension Bureau cited the fact that her Army service was not legal. It is estimated that Williams died between 1892 and 1900. Her final resting place is unknown.

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American women have disguised themselves as men in order to serve since the Revolutionary War. Williams, however, was the first known African American to do so. She is also the only known woman to disguise herself as a man during the Indian Wars. Her fierce independence and determination to serve are hallmarks of the American spirit that she, and so many others before and after her, have sought to defend.

Published on 24 Jun 2020