Feb 15, 2011

 
 
 

On November 15, 1866, Cathay Williams enlisted with the United States Regular Army in St. Louis, Missouri, for a three year tour of duty. She told the recruiting officer that she was 22 years old and a cook. She said her name was William Cathay and she was born in Independence, Missouri. She was illiterate and didn't know that her papers read "William Cathey" when she gave them to the recruiting officer. The records from the recruiting officer state that William Cathey was 5'9", black eyes, black hair, and black complexion.

An army surgeon examined her upon enlistment, and determined that the recruit was fit for duty. The exam had to be cursory, just checking for obvious and superficial impairments or abnormalities. If either the surgeon or the recruiting officer realized that William Cathey was female, well... 19th century U.S. Army regulations forbade the regular enlistment or commissioning of women.

Other than her birthplace, we know nothing of this woman prior to her enlistment in the U.S. Army. Even her age is uncertain. She might have been only 16 years old and, as do so many boys who lie about their age, she may have, too. The 1860's US Army hardly ever checked age claims, nor did they ask for proof of identity. As to why she might enlist in the Army, as a black woman in 1866 her prospects were pretty sad. But the army paid her more as a black male cook than she could have ever earned as a black female cook.

As women disguised as men had fought in the volunteer armies of the Revolution and of the Civil War, Cathay Williams may be the first to have served in the United States Regular Army in the 19th century. She is also the only documented African-American woman who served in the U.S. Army prior to the official introduction of women in 1948.

Upon enlistment, as William Cathey, she was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry, which had been officially established in August, 1866, as a designated, segregated African-American unit. (The 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantries were the other designated and segregated black units created that year.) The segregated African-American regiments were commanded by white officers, with the regimental headquarters of the 38th at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.

From the records, it looks like she could march long distances as well as any man in her unit. When not on the march, all privates did garrison duty, drilled and trained, and went scouting for signs of hostile Native Americans. William Cathey participated in her share of their duties. There is no record that she ever engaged an enemy or saw any form of direct combat while she was enlisted.

During her entire military career, William Cathey was recorded as being in four different hospitals on five separate occasions, for varying amounts of time. And no one discovered that William Cathey was really Cathay Williams, am African-American woman. The fact that in five hospital visits, no one realized the sex of William Cathey raises a few questions about the quality of medical care available to the soldiers of the U.S. Army, even by 19th centuty standards, or at least to the African-American soldiers of that time. Obviously, she was never fully undressed during her hospital stays. There is no record of what kind of treatment was given to her at any of the hospitals. But whatever treatments she did receive, they obviously did not work.

On October 14, 1868, William Cathey and two other privates in Company A were discharged at Fort Bayard on a surgeon's certificate of disability. William Cathey's certificate included statements from the captain of her company and the post's assistant surgeon. The captain stated that Cathey had been under his command since May 20, 1867 "... and has been since feeble both physically and mentally, and much of the time quite unfit for duty. The origin of his infirmities is unknown to me." The surgeon stated that Cathey was of "...a feeble habit. He is continually on sick report without benefit. He is unable to do military duty.... This condition dates prior to enlistment." Despite the three-year enlistment, she served her country for just under two years.

After her discharge, she resumed wearing women's clothing and went back to being Cathay Williams. She worked as a cook for the family of a colonel in 1869 and 1870 at Fort Union. Then she went to Pueblo, Colorado and worked as a laundress for a Mr. Dunbar. In 1872, she settled permanently in Trinidad, Colorado, making her living as a laundress and part-time nurse.

In late 1889 or early 1890, she was hospitalized in Trinidad for nearly a year and a half but there's no record detailing the nature of her illness. She was indigent when she left the hospital, so in June 1891, based on her military service, she filed for an invalid pension. Her application brought out the fact that an African-American woman had served in the Regular Army.

 
 
 
 
 
 

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