COLUMN — Williams was first African American female to serve in the U.S. military

Published 5:10 pm Friday, March 26, 2021

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Ladies, would you be brave enough to enlist in the military posing as a man? I would hope my courage would be that strong. Cathay Williams was that courageous.

In September 1844 Cathay Williams was born in Independence, Missouri to a free father and a slave mother, which made her a slave by law during the antebellum era.

Williams worked as a house slave during her adolescence on the Johnson plantation located on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri. During the Civil War in 1861 Union forces occupied the city. Captured slaves were considered contraband. Many were forced into servitude as cooks, laundresses and nurses in the military.

Even though women were prohibited from military service, on Nov. 15, 1866, Williams enlisted in the U.S. Army under the fake name of William Cathay. She became the first African-American woman to enlist in the Army and the only woman to pose as a man in the service.

Unbeknownst to her fellow soldiers, she served in the St. Louis in the 38th Infantry Regiment as a private with the Buffalo Soldiers for two-and-a-half years. Only two people in her regiment knew of her true identity — her cousin and a friend. The Buffalo Soldiers were established in Sept. 1866 by Congress. It was the first peacetime all black regiment. Their main goal was to help control the Plains Native Americans, capture cattle rustlers and thieves as well as protect settlers, stagecoaches wagon trains and railroad crews along the Western front. Although they were valiant in service to their country, these dedicated soldiers could not escape the prejudice and discrimination of the mistreatment of African Americans during the Civil War.

Subsequently, Williams was hospitalized after contracting smallpox but soon after, rejoined her unit who were then in New Mexico. Later on Williams was hospitalized again possibly because of side effects from her illness, heat or strain put on her body by marching. It was then a surgeon discovered she was a woman informing her commander.

Consequently, on October 14, 1868, Williams was discharged from the U. S. Army by Captain Charles E. Clarke. Afterward she went to work at Fort Union, New Mexico as a cook yet later moved to Pueblo, Colorado.  The former army officer married, but it ended in disaster when her husband stole her money and a team of horses. Williams had him arrested.

Finally, Williams moved to Trinidad, Colorado where she worked as a seamstress. At this time, a reporter from St Louis heard rumors of an African American woman who served in the Army and interviewed her. For the first time her story was made public January 2, 1876, in The St. Louis Daily Times.

Around 1890, Williams was hospitalized, and in June 1891 applied for military disability pension because there was a precedence where other women such as Anna Maria Lane and Mary Hayes McCaulay (Molly Pitcher) who received pensions for their service in the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, in September 1893, after a U. S. Pension Bureau doctor examined Williams, she was denied her pension.

The woman had neuralgia, diabetes, had all her toes amputated and walked with a crutch.

Sadly, it is believed Williams died in 1893, but the exact date and her final resting place are unknown. Her legacy includes a 2016 bronze bust featuring information about her with a small rose garden around it outside.

The Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, Kansas and a 2018 Private Cathay Williams monument bench at the Wall of Honor at the National Infantry Museum.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month let us honor the bravery, determination and sacrifice of Williams who shattered glass ceilings and served her country even though that country did not see her as an equal.

Williams joins an elite group of women who were first in service to their communities and the U. S. They are not the last.

Judy Moore is a tour guide, lover of history and citizen of Wylliesburg, VA.  She can be reached at