African American Women in the Armed Forces, Part 1: Cathay Williams AKA William Cathay, the First Known Black Female Soldier
It is almost impossible to discuss African American Women in the Armed Forces without mentioning the very first known Black female soldier, Cathay Williams, also known as William Cathay. Cathay, born November 4, 1842, was an enslaved young woman who was emancipated by Union Soldiers after her owner died. When the Civil War broke out, she went to work as a paid servant. Cathay experienced military life firsthand as she served as a cook and laundress with the US Army.
Cathay traveled all over the south during the Civil War, and after the war ended, she still needed to maintain her financial independence. Since females, black or white, were not allowed to serve in the Army, she decided to enlist as a man. Cathay was assigned to the 38th US Infantry in 1866, joining Company A of the Buffalo Soldiers – the famous all-Black regiment. After enlistment, she was known as William Cathay.
William Cathay was described as 5’9, with dark hair and skin, and one of the few pictures of ‘him’ indicated that ‘he’ was not thin. During Cathay’s two years of service, she was hospitalized 5 times, and her true gender remained undiscovered until July 13, 1868 when she was thoroughly examined during a hospital stay for neuralgia. On October 14, 1868, Cathay Williams, AKA William Cathay was honorably discharged from the Army. Her Commanding Officer noted that she was feeble, both mentally and physically, and she was unable to perform her military duty.
After Cathay left the service, she made a living as a cook, laundress and part-time nurse, but ill health forced her to apply for a pension from the Army, claiming that she suffered from deafness, diabetes, rheumatism, and neuralgia. In addition, all her toes had been amputated and she walked with a cane. Unfortunately, the pension board rejected her claim on medical grounds. They stated that no disability existed and that her service was not legal, so her claim was denied.
What happened to her afterward is unknown, but historians assert that she probably died between 1892 and 1900. Cathay Williams, AKA William Cathay, has the distinction of being the first female, black or white, to serve in the armed forces. She was also the only female Buffalo Soldier.
What Cathay Williams did was not unique, as over 400 females posed as men to enlist in the army, mainly because it was a reliable source of income.
Submitted by: Sharon Smith-Knight
Administrator. “Cathay Williams Female Buffalo Soldier-With Documents.” Web. Buffalosoldier.net, retrieved 17 Jul. 2017.
Grant, Kay. “A Private’s Secret: Ex-Slaves ability to disguise gender for two years in the U.S. Army remains a mystery today.” American Legion Magazine, Mar. 2007, 14-15.
Weiser, Kathy. “Old West Legends: Cathay Williams – Female Buffalo Soldier.” Legends of America, Sep. 2016. Web. Retrieved 17 Jul. 2017.
Subjects: Military; Women soldiers; Women’s history
*Photo of a bronze bust memorial to Cathay Williams, Leavenworth, Kansas.
Image retrieved from http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article91412232.html