Cathay Williams knew that she couldn’t volunteer to serve as a regular soldier in the US military. But knowing didn’t stop her. The young girl who had once labored as a house slave on the Johnson Plantation in Jefferson City, Mo.,. devised a plan to enlist in the US Regular Army: she would register under the pseudonym William Cathay.
As contraband, or a captured slave, Williams served as an army cook and a washerwoman, traveling with the infantry all over the country while serving under General Philip Sheridan. This experience with the military didn’t satisfy Williams; she wanted more. Military service held the lure of independence for a young, unmarried former slave.
On Nov. 15, 1866, the 17-year-old, born to an enslaved mother and a free father in Independence, Mo. in 1844, enlisted for a three-year engagement, passing herself off as a man.
At the time, the army did not require full medical examinations. After passing the physical tests, Williams was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment, one of four all-Black units newly formed that year. The regiment would later be known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
This excerpt, dated Jan. 2, 1876, was pulled from an interview with the St. Louis Daily Times: “The regiment I joined wore the Zouave uniform and 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.
“Soon after I joined the army, I was taken with the smallpox and was sick at a hospital across the river from St. Louis, but as soon as I got well, I joined my company in New Mexico… 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.
“The post surgeon found out I was a woman and I got my discharge. 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.” Williams was discharged honorably by her commanding officer, Captain Charles E. Clarke, on Oct. 14, 1868. After leaving the army, Williams moved to Pueblo, Colo., where she again worked as a cook and washerwoman. She was married for a short time and bore no children. There are no official records of her death, however, it is estimated that she passed away sometime around 1893.