William Cathay enlisted in the U.S. Army on Nov. 15, 1866, for a three-year term. Since the Army didn't do full physical examinations during this period, it would allow Cathay to serve out most of the contract, even though William Cathay was actually Cathay Williams, a woman posing as a man. But her service started long before she was old enough to enlist.
She would end her Army career as the Army's only female Buffalo Soldier and first Black woman to enlist.
She was born in 1844 in Missouri to a free father and an enslaved woman, which made her legally a slave. When the Union Army captured Jefferson City, slaves were considered "contraband" so Cathay Williams and slaves like her supported the Union Army as camp followers. She and others cooked for the troops, cleaned their laundry or acted as nurses.
According to stories told by Williams after her enlistment and discharge, she followed the Union Army throughout the west and was present for many of its most important engagements, including the Siege of Vicksburg and Gen. William T. Sherman's March to the Sea.
She had begun supporting the Union Army at age 17. By the time the war ended, she was 22 years old, but the Army was all she'd known as an adult. With the Civil War over and slaves across the country freed, she enlisted in the Army, posing as William Cathay and was sent to the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment.
The unit was organized in 1866 as one of six segregated Black infantry regiments, which became collectively known as "Buffalo Soldiers." They were the first all-Black infantry regiments of the regular Army formed during peacetime.
The 38th's primary mission was protecting the construction of the intercontinental railroads, the first of which was completed in 1869, when the 38th merged with the 41st Infantry Regiment. The 41st was also a segregated unit, which had spent the time in Louisiana and Texas.
The only thing that kept Williams from completing her enlistment was a disease that would be eliminated in the United States 20 years later: smallpox. She contracted the virus not long after signing up for the Army. After recovering, she rejoined the 38th, which was then in New Mexico for the railroads' east-west continental connection.
After she suffered years of stress on her body, frequent hospitalizations and never fully recovered from her smallpox infection, Army doctors finally took a closer look at William Cathay and discovered the truth. She was honorably discharged in 1868 and moved to Fort Union, New Mexico, where she went to work as a cook.
The Buffalo Soldiers went on to fight in the Indian Wars of the American West and the Spanish-American War. Cathay Williams moved to Colorado. She became a seamstress as her story remained untold in the wider press for almost a decade. In 1874, a reporter from the St. Louis Daily Times heard rumors of a Black woman who had served in and was honorably discharged from the Army and published an account two years later.
Williams' medical troubles followed her for the rest of her life. She was known to have suffered from neuralgia (pain along certain nerves) and diabetes (from which she lost all her toes), but her applications for medical pensions from the Army were denied. No one knows precisely when or where she died or at what age.
The Global Association of Buffalo Soldiers Recognition and Riding Club Inc. finally recognized Williams' historic service after almost 150 years. In 2015, it unveiled a monument bench for Pvt. Cathay Williams on the Walk of Honor at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia.
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