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 William Cathay
The legendry of the first woman Buffalo Soldier
(view discharge papers)

As the mainstream society honors Woman’s History Month and ponders the beginning of war, AAN&I, the largest circulated newspaper with a Black perspective honors Black Women in the military with a recollection of the first Female Buffalo Soldier. She was born Cathy Williams, but became Pvt. William Cathay, an African- American woman who disguised herself as a man to become a Buffalo Soldier. Cathy Williams joined when legislation was adopted to create the first 6 all African-American Army units. These units as well as all other African-American regiments became known as Buffalo Soldiers. She served faithfully from 1866 to 1868. Although the story of Cathy Williams may not be well known we do know a great deal about her life.

She was born in September of 1844 in Independence, Missouri. Her father was a free man and thus it has been said that this gave her a taste of freedom worth fighting for. During her time in slavery, she was a house slave on the Johnson Plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri. As a house slave she was able to enjoy some of the conveniences of being a house servant which included learning basic reading. However, most importantly, the influences of the Black culture on the plantation helped to instill in her a sense of honor, integrity and strength, which would serve her well in the years to come.

In 1861 Williams was freed with the Union occupation of Jefferson City. Unfortunately at that time freed slaves were seen as contraband. Not much different from being slaves. Contraband were being picked by the military to serve in regiments during the Civil War. She saw her first job in the army when she became a cook for the 8th Indiana volunteer infantry. After they realized her skills were lacking as a cook she was made the laundress for the regiment. As a laundress she endured the long, hard travel through the wilderness learning to bear the harsh weather and elements, as did the soldiers of the unit. The ability to deal with this life prepared Williams for her destiny.
In 1863, she receive her first glimpse of African-American soldiers in Little Rock, Arkansas when she was suddenly taken from the 8th Indiana infantry to learn cooking. She later returned to her regiment and by late 1864 and now was serving in the Union Army of her own free will. She gave dedicated service to the Union Army for 3 years. According to Phillip Thomas Tucker in his book about Williams he said, “If any single event made Cathy Williams see the righteous side of military life and convince her that a blue uniform represented moral good, it was probably the liberation of slaves… Perhaps the knowledge that she was now part of a liberating army helped to give Cathy Williams the idea of one day wearing a blue uniform.”

After the end of the Civil War, in 1866, while finding employment as a cook in Missouri, she first learned of Black soldiers being enlisted in the Regular Army. The recruiting was taking place in Jefferson Barracks in Missouri where she was working as a cook. During the fall of 1866, Williams made the decision to enlist. She decided to disguise herself as a man because it was illegal for a female to join the army, but Williams no doubt had a call to conscience, a call to help the United States in its cause. She knew from being in the 8th Indiana Regiment during the Civil War that she could handle the obstacles she would face in the military. It may have been morally wrong for Williams to hide her gender, but the thought behind the reasons to her and many others were acceptable.
November 15, 1866 is the official enlistment date of Williams in the 38th Infantry. She was 5 feet 9 inches tall and wore men's’ clothes and went by the name William Cathay. She listed her age as 22 and her occupation as a cook. Her courage, intelligence and keen eye helped her to pull off the facade. However, she still had to pass a physical exam by an army surgeon. The surgeon however was only interested in determining if she could march long distances and could carry a musket. He did not give her a physical examination and thus she passed and her secret was still hidden. She was now a Buffalo Soldier. Giving up something as precious as her femininity must have been hard for her, however, she must have believed her sacrifices were well worth the cause. Williams donned her uniform of a dark blue blouse and lighter blue trousers and unbeknownst to anyone at the time Cathy Williams was the first Black female and even further first female to serve in the Regular U.S. Army.
By enlisting as a Buffalo Soldier, she would now be a part of a group that mirrored her life, she would be a part of an African-American community and share in the spiritual and psychological life of her people and be a part of the regulated U.S. Army to which she learned so much from during her time with the 8th Indiana. She initially served under Capt. Charles Edward Clarke, who was a fair officer. He treated the Black soldiers with respect and fairness. There were some White officers leading the Buffalo Soldiers that did not like the idea of African- Americans in the regular army and that attitude was apparent in their actions. The Buffalo Soldiers were not only treated with little respect by some of those in the Regular Army, including commanders and soldiers; they were also given second hand rations and clothing. This was not new to Williams; therefore she had become accustomed to enduring this type of treatment. It has been said that, “the only obstacles that the Buffalo Soldiers could not overcome were those of prejudice and discrimination.” The campaigns of 38th Infantry were grueling and took them across the Great Plains, from Kansas to Colorado to New Mexico. They had the responsibility of being the garrison over forts and camps across the Western Frontier. Throughout the service in the West one of the greatest challenges for Williams’ company was fighting the Native Americans.

While on duty in the Western Frontier in early 1867 Williams twice contracted small pox and was hospitalized. She somehow she managed to keep her identity a secret. When she and her infantry, the 38th were hit by the cholera epidemic while in Fort Harker, Kansas, racism and prejudice once again showed it’s ugly face. It played a significant role in blaming the Buffalo Soldiers, when in fact the epidemic originated with English immigrants that landed in Halifax in 1866. It started in eastern cities and made its way across the Western Frontier. Williams herself never contracted cholera, but many soldiers died from the disease. Due to the rumors that the 38th carried the epidemic they were not allowed in the forts while on their march through the New Mexico territory. They were only allowed to draw supplies and then had to move on. The end of the cholera epidemic finally came and Williams had beaten the odds once again. Some historians believe that the lack of sufficient food, medicine, clothing and all around care of the soldiers during their time in the military and before as slaves left them easy prey to many diseases of this era. Tucker had this to say about the treatment of the Buffalo Soldiers, “ The Buffalo Soldiers were the last priority for almost anything and everything issued by the government-except hard and dangerous duty. Such discriminatory treatment combined with the poor rations affected moral on occasion, but did not dull their fighting spirit. Indeed, the Black soldiers not only persevered but also continued to rise to the challenge of the most arduous duty in the West.” On October 1, 1867, Williams and her troop arrived at Fort Cummings in southern New Mexico, the heart of Apache territory. Williams was coming upon the last 8 months of her service. Some of her duties at Fort Cummings included, work details, scout or patrol for the area and guard duty. During this time, the Black soldiers did more menial and demeaning tasks and were subject to harsher punishment for small infractions than White soldiers. When not performing these menial tasks, they were given the orders to fight the mighty Apache nation lead by Cochise. Tucker writes, “Williams became the first and only female in the Regular U.S. Army to engage in active offensive operations against the Apache or any other Native American tribe.” Williams became sick several more times during her last months in the service. She was always forced to hide her gender when she went to the army hospital. Tucker made clear the cause for Williams’ medical problems, “In regard to Williams’ case alleged female physical weakness was certainly not a factor that led to her health problems, instead it was an extremely hard life led over a lengthy period of time in service to her country.”
By fall of 1868, military life had begun to wear on Cathy Williams, the endless marching from post to post, the inadequate supplies, lack of food and dominant racism had taken its toll, as well as trying to keep her gender concealed. In order to get her discharge Williams feigned sickness and let the surgeon at Fort Bayard discover her true identity. She received her discharge on October 14, 1868. She ended her career much as she began it, in her own way. Regardless of being a woman and being ill during her service, she did her duty. In her own words, she said “… I carried my musket and did guard duty and other duties while in the army.” The experience taught Williams how to survive in a harsh world around those who did not think she and her fellow slaves and soldiers deserved a part of the American experience. “As Pvt. William Cathay, she had embraced the life of a Buffalo Soldier and triumphed with grace, competency, and pride while faithfully serving for nearly two years as a “good soldier” on the Western Frontier.”

Once Williams left the service she initially stayed close to military life, near Fort Union. This was a good decision because she wanted to stay near the Western Frontier, it was the only independent life she knew and it was economically smart because soldiers needed cooks and such for themselves and their families. When Williams first retired, she worked as a cook for a colonel and his family in Fort Union from 1869-1870. She managed to save some money and start to feel secure. She moved to South Central Colorado, Pueblo to be exact and worked again as a laundress. It was there she met her husband to be, but this would be her only marriage. Not being accustomed to sharing her personal life with a man she was naïve. She was not married long when trouble began and her husband stole from her and left. In her own words, “I got married…but my husband was no account he stole my watch and chain, a hundred dollars in money and my team of horses and wagon.” She immediately turned him in and had him arrested. Afterwards, Williams continued to travel throughout the remainder of her life always looking for a good opportunity to better herself and her life. She would find work as a laundress, seamstress or cook. She made homes in Trinidad, along the New Mexico border and Las Animas, near the Arkansas River. However, it was in Trinidad that Williams’ life would become forever a part of American History. A newspaperman from the Daily Times in St. Louis, Missouri heard about Williams and her life as a soldier and interviewed her for his newspaper. He along with many people were amazed at this woman, who on her own was able to serve with some of the bravest men in the Army, through some of the most laborious duty in the West. Life was good for Williams in Trinidad, but she soon left, no doubt she heard the beckoning call from the frontier. She settled in Raton, New Mexico in the early 1880’s. While there she ran a boarding house for a short time, but in early 1886 she returned to Trinidad. By early 1890 Williams’ health problems resurfaced. Some say she may also have suffered from diabetes. We know that her toes on both feet were amputated and for the remainder of her life she had to walk with the use of a crutch. Williams is said to have passed away in 1892, but no one knows for sure or where her final resting place may be. But, we do know that she left a lasting impact on America. She was a beacon of light during one of this nations’ darkest times. Although she never had any children of her own, she left a lasting legacy.

Tucker summed it up best when he wrote, “The many struggles, trials and sacrifices of Williams tell the story of the intangible that no one could either deny or take away from her in the end, assuring her a successful life. Her intact pride and dignity revealed a heroic triumph of the spirit…Today the faithful and honorable service of black women in the U.S. Military is recognized as essential to the supremacy of the most powerful armed forces in the world. Tens of thousands of African American men and women now serve in the American armed forces. Long ago, an obscure young ex-slave named Williams indirectly helped to pave the way by her service on behalf of her country.”