Her brothers-in-arms knew her as William Cathay but history remembers her as Cathay Williams, the first Black woman to serve in the U.S Army. She is also the only documented female soldier to pose as a man.
Before entering the military, she spent her early life in Missouri. Her father was free but her mother was enslaved. By the law of the day, she was born into slavery in September 1844. As a child, she worked in the main house of the Johnson plantation in Jefferson City.
The Union military took over Jefferson City in 1861 making slaves the contraband of the U.S. As a result, many of them went from toiling on the plantation to toiling for Union soldiers in camps. Colonel William Plummer Benton assigned Williams to the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment where she did much of the same domestic work.
She followed the 8th into several campaigns throughout the South. When the Civil War ended she was working in Lemay, Missouri at the Jefferson Barracks.
Serving As William Cathay
During the Civil War, while stationed in Little Rock, Arkansas she saw Black soldiers in uniform. It would be years before she joined the military but it is believed that this was what inspired her to enlist. In November 1866, she joined the U.S. Regular Army as William Cathay disguised as a man. Two soldiers who that Cathay was actually a woman: her cousin and a family friend. Despite this, she managed to pass a physical for service.
Her service had her based out of St. Louis for three years as part of the 38th U.S Infantry Regiment. Early into her service she caught smallpox and had to sit out service for a while before joining the 38th in New Mexico. After two years, her health began to worsen in the harsh conditions out West and she spent a lot of time in the hospital. Eventually, a surgeon discovered that William Cathay was actually a woman and she was discharged in October 1868.
After her military service, Cathay Williams worked in New Mexico as a cook then moved to Colorado. Her she had a failed marriage with a man who stole her money and property. Williams remained in Colorado and worked as a seamstress in the city of Trinidad.
When a St. Louis reporter came across rumors of a Black woman who served in the U.S. Army, he had to find her. Her story was printed in the January 2, 1876 issue of the St. Louis Daily Times.
Death and Honors
By the early 1890s, Williams’ health began to decline. She couldn’t receive a disability pension from the military despite other women who posed as male soldiers being able to do so decades earlier. It’s unknown when she died but she definitely passed in the early 1890s and as late as 1893. In the years leading up to her death, she was dealing with complications from diabetes and neuralgia.
Cathay Williams is honored via a bronze bust at Leavenworth, Texas’ Richard Allen Cultural Center. The bust was erected two years before her monument bench at the National Infantry Museum’s Walk of Honor in 2018.