Cathay Williams became William Cathay
And no one was to know
The secret of her identity
As a soldier she did grow.
So wrote Linda Kirkpatrick in her 1999 poem “Cathay Williams,” about the first black woman (that historians know of) to enlist in the U.S. Army — in the guise of a man.
Williams was born a slave in Independence, Missouri, in 1842. A grown woman enslaved in Jefferson City at the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, she was taken by a Union regiment and put to work, like many other slaves “freed” by the Army. She told the St. Louis Daily Times in January 1876:
[When] United States soldiers came to Jefferson City they took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock. Col. Benton of the 13th army corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go. He wanted me to cook for the officers, but I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook. I learned to cook after going to Little Rock…
Williams traveled through Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Iowa, and other places, serving as a cook and laundress. The war ended in 1865, but Williams was not done with the military.
Female soldiers being unlawful, she disguised herself as a male (she was tall, at five foot nine) and enlisted in St. Louis. She called herself “William Cathay” (at times spelled “Cathey”). An Army surgeon, whose job seemingly did not entail a thorough physical examination, declared her fit for duty. She joined the 38th U.S. Infantry, a black regiment (“Buffalo Soldiers”), on November 15, 1866. She remembered:
Only two persons, a cousin and a particular friend, members of the regiment, knew that I was a woman. They never ‘blowed’ on me. They were partly the cause of my joining the army. Another reason was I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.
What followed is believed to be an uneventful two years in the military. Williams marched from Missouri to Kansas to New Mexico, but likely did not see combat. She was hospitalized five times for various medical problems — joint pain, nerve pain, severe itching — but somehow was not discovered immediately. According to her, some ailments were faked:
I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the army, but finally I got tired and wanted to get off. I played sick, complained of pains in my side, and rheumatism in my knees.
Then a doctor had the surprise of his life: “The post surgeon found out I was a woman and I got my discharge.”
That was at Fort Bayard, New Mexico. Interestingly, neither her commander nor the surgeon mentioned anything about her gender in the discharge papers. The commander said Williams “has been since feeble both physically and mentally, and much of the time quite unfit for duty. The origin of his infirmities is unknown to me.” The surgeon said Williams was of “…a feeble habit. He is continually on sick report without benefit. He is unable to do military duty… This condition dates prior to enlistment.”
Whether these men were too embarrassed to admit a woman had pulled the wool over their eyes is a matter of speculation (though her “condition” dating “prior to enlistment” seems a wonderfully humorous comment on her gender; otherwise, one might ask just how a surgeon at a New Mexico fort knew her “feeble habit” dated prior to enlistment in St. Louis, where a surgeon declared her fit for duty).
In any case, Williams faced immediate harassment: “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.”
She served as an army cook in New Mexico for a time, then spent the rest of her days in Colorado and St. Louis. She was hospitalized again, and applied for a disability pension based on her military service. Her application was rejected. She died in 1892.
A monument for Williams can be found in Leavenworth, Kansas.