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Cathay Williams: Female Buffalo Soldier

Cathay Williams portrait

Introduction

The Buffalo Soldiers are renowned for being the first all-Black regiment in the U.S. Army. The regiment, which was created after the Civil War, was made up of former slaves, freemen, and Black Civil War veterans.

What many people don't know is that the Buffalo Soldiers also had a female member. Cathay Williams, the only documented woman to serve as a Buffalo Soldier, served her country, joining the Army after the Civil War had ended. In this post, we'll delve more into her story.

Who was Cathay Williams

Cathay Williams, who was born into slavery in Independence, Missouri, in 1844, was the daughter of a plantation owner (father) and a slave (mother). After her father passed away, she was sold to several different owners. In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, she worked for the Union Army as a laundress until a scourging disease forced her to leave.

How her relationship with the Union Army started in 1861 is still unknown. Some argue that Williams was forced into service as captured contraband, a common practice back then where captured slaves were placed into support roles as cooks, laundresses or medical assistants. Others argue she served voluntarily.

Whatever you believe, by 17, Williams started her professional relationship with the U.S. Army by serving with the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment commanded by Col. William Plummer Benton.

Cathay Williams traveled with the 8th Indiana for several years, participating in marches through Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia. She was present at the Battle of Pea Ridge and the Red River Campaign. Later, Williams was transferred to Washington, D.C., where she served under Gen. Philip Sheridan.

Cathay Williams Enlistment

On Nov. 15, 1866, after the Civil War ended, Williams joined the U.S. Army. She informed her recruiting officer that she was a 22-year-old cook. He described her as 5' 9", with black eyes, black hair and black complexion. She identified herself as William Cathay.

An Army surgeon examined Cathay and determined the recruit was fit for duty, thus sealing her fate in history as the first documented black woman to enlist in the Army even though U.S. Army regulations forbade the enlistment of women. However, women weren't allowed to enlist in the Army or any other military branch at that time, so she disguised herself as a man and adopted the name William Cathay.

Cathay Williams the Soldier

She became a private in the 38th Infantry Regiment, which later became the 24th Infantry Regiment. When her company headed to their first post at Fort Riley, Kansas, Cathay stayed behind with smallpox. Catching up with the company at Fort Riley, Cathay once again went to the hospital. This time with a severe skin rash.

Later that summer, the entire company (including Cathay) marched 500 miles to Fort Union in northeastern New Mexico. But during their march, cholera swept through the company. When Company A finally arrived at Fort Union, the post surgeon barred them from the fort and quarantined them on the prairie beyond the fort.

After a brief stay at Fort Union, Company A marched another 350 miles to Fort Cummings in southwest New Mexico. During an eight-month stay at Fort Cummings, Cathay had two more stints in the hospital. In June 1868, Company A transferred to Fort Bayard and Cathay checked into the post hospital almost immediately.

Three months later, Cathay was back in the Fort Bayard hospital. This time, the post surgeon made an astounding discovery. Private Cathay was a woman. The official Army recruiting paperwork makes no mention of Cathay's real gender.

Cathay Williams Discharge

Cathay Williams the Veteran

Williams was discharged from the Army by her commanding officer, Captain Charles E. Clarke on October 14, 1868. Cathay was given a discharge that stated that she was continually on sick report and mentally and physically feeble as a soldier. Many argue today that she was discharged because of her gender, but the Army’s official reason for discharge was that her health wasn’t good. She was given a disability discharge certificate.

In the aftermath of her Army tour of duty, Williams was a mystery. According to the National Park Service and its historians, it is uncertain why she masqueraded as a man to join the Army. She was illiterate, and left no diaries or letters. Nor are there any known photographs of her.

In a January 1876 interview published in the St. Louis Daily Times, she said “I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.”

The National Park Service says that after her discharge, Williams worked as a cook for one of the officers at Fort Union, New Mexico. After leaving Fort Union, she worked as a laundress and cook around the region. Her last known location was in Trinidad, Colorado, in 1892, when she would have been about 48. She disappeared from the Trinidad census rolls after 1892 so historians are not sure if she died there or moved away.

Cathay Williams Pension Fight

Williams married after her service, but it ended disastrously when her husband stole her money, jewelry and a team of horses. Around late 1889 or early 1890, Williams was hospitalized for some time, and in June 1891, 25 years after her discharge, Williams applied for a disability pension based on her military service.

Cathay Williams Disability Claim

The nature of her illness and disability are unknown. It is important to note that other women who had disguised themselves as men and served in the American military had been granted pensions prior to Williams serving. There are several from the Revolutionary War, for example. However, in September 1893, a doctor employed by the U.S. Pension Bureau examined Williams and determined she did not qualify for disability payments. Her application was rejected. 

It is unknown where she died and what caused her death. If she was buried odds are her grave marker was likely made of wood and could have easily rotted away leaving no trace of her burial.

Conclusion Cathay Williams

Cathay Williams is a symbol of hope and inspiration to all women, especially African Americans. Despite being born into enslavement, experiencing various forms of abuse, and facing gender discrimination, she served her country.

Her story should be remembered and told as the tale of the first woman to serve as a Buffalo Soldier. By learning her story, we can draw inspiration for achieving great things despite challenging life circumstances, paving the way for future generations.

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