Did you know… Cathay Williams?
Cathay Williams was born in Independence, Missouri in September 1844. Her father was a free African American, her mother a slave. Since the status of children was determined by the status of the mother, Cathay was a slave, on the Johnson plantation outside Jefferson City.
In 1861, Union troops captured the Jefferson City area. Slaves at that time were treated as “contraband” by the Union army, like cattle or ammunition. Cathay was forced at 17 to serve the 8th Indiana Volunteers, cooking, washing, and generally, whatever servant’s chores that needed doing. She served in this support role at the Battle of Pea Ridge, and during the Red River campaign, for General Phillip Sheridan.
After the Civil War, she was released. Job prospects for a twenty-one year old single black woman were bleak. After all her contact with military life, she disguised herself as a man. On November 15, 1866, she enlisted for three years at St. Louis in the 38th Infantry regiment, the Buffalo Soldiers. The medical exam was not thorough 🙄.
Thus she became the first female African American soldier in the United States armed forces.
“It is no mystery why Williams joined the Army after her stint as a Jefferson City house slave: the lure of independence for a young, female, unmarried former slave held an undeniable attraction.
Williams said, ‘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.’ ” -the Wounded Warrior project.
Unfortunately, soon after her enlistment, she contracted small pox. She caught up with her regiment in New Mexico, still not really well, and was hospitalized several more times. This led to discovery that she was a woman, followed by discharge in 1868.
She worked as a cook at Fort Pueblo, Colorado, and a seamstress, in Trinidad, Co.
A brief marriage did not work, as the man stole all her money and a team of horses. She had him arrested, and the marriage ended. Her health continued to be poor, and she applied for a veteran’s disability pension. Cathay was turned down despite having several toes amputated from diabetes, and only able to walk with a crutch. She died a few months later, in 1893, and was laid to rest in a pauper’s grave. The wooden marker has disappeared, so no one knows the exact location.
“In 2016, a bronze bust of Cathay Williams, featuring information about her and with a small rose garden around it, was unveiled outside the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, Kansas. In 2018, the Private Cathay Williams monument bench was unveiled on the Walk of Honor at the National Infantry Museum.” – Wikipedia