Black History Month - Cathay Williams - A Tribute to Women of Color and Substance
Black History Month - First Black Female Soldier
There have been at least four hundred documented cases regarding women who disguise themselves as men and entered the Union and Rebel Armies during the Civil War. Most, if not all, submitted themselves into the nomadic, hazardous way of life to gain financial independence. An independence that was a rarity for women no matter what race.
Cathay Williams, born to a freedman and a slave mother, entered slavery upon the first breath she drew the day she was born. The plantation master, where she eventually ended up working, died around the time the Union Army took possession of Jefferson City, Missouri.
Slaves "rescued" from occupied plantations were considered contraband by Union Army personnel and were "convinced" to enter into service. This happened to Ms. Williams, at the tender age of seventeen, where she became part of the the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Cathay worked as cook and laundress. A paid servant.
"Will the slave fight? If any man asks you, tell him No. But if anyone asks you will a Negro fight, tell him Yes!" - Wendell Phillips
186,000 black soldiers fought in the war 38,000 were killed in action. This was due to lack of employment opportunities for newly freed slaves. The Army was considered a welcome benefit and smart economic move for black males seeking financial independence. The military offered steady pay, medical attention, shelter, education,security and pension.
"I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent of relations or friends." - Cathay Williams
November 15, 1866 Cathay Williams enlisted into the United States Regular Army in St. Louis. Enlisted as William Cathay, due to her illiteracy her last name was spelled Cathey. Only two people knew of her true identity, both were close family members who remained silent. As par for the course with new enlistees a medical examination was mandatory.
Physicians charged with the examinations provided only the most perfunctory exams, if any at all, on recruits. Quotas needed to be filled and as long as the body was warm and standing upright it was accepted. Delays in recruitment prevented regiments from arriving to their posts in a timely manner. This is the major reason Williams was granted entry into the service as fit for duty.
William Cathey's Army stint only lasted two years. The harsh life of a soldier took its toll physically on William who spent more time in Army hospitals than on duty. Most of the stays were extended due to various physical ailments of rheumatism and neuralgia, five times in four different hospitals. On her last hospital stay her true condition was found out (oh, to be a fly on that wall!).
Outed on October 14, 1868 Cathay was summarily and hurriedly discharged from service with a certificate of disability. Labeled as "feeble both mentally and physically" unfit for duty. A statement from a surgeon insinuated that the aforementioned was a preexisting condition at time of enlistment.
It would be another eighty years before females would be allowed into military service. What distinguishes Cathay Williams in Black History? She is the only documented Afro American woman to enter the Army disguised as a man, and the only documented female Buffalo Soldier.
Cathay Williams in Books
Cathay Williams Civilian
Cathay Williams in Cowboy Poetry
In a tiny shotgun cabin
Martha's baby girl was born.
A baby born to slavery
That no one could forewarn.
Cathay Williams was determined
And never was deterred
As she began her life as a house girl
Being seen but never heard.
Then the Civil War broke out
And the Union soldiers came
And taking Cathay with them
Her life would never be the same.
Cathay learned the ways of military life
And became an accomplished cook.
She was sent to General Sheridan
A job she proudly undertook.
Then the Civil War was ended
And Cathay was finally free
And in seeking out her freedom,
She found her place in history.
Her own way she needed to make
And a burden to no one be
So as a Buffalo Soldier she joined up
In the 38th U. S. Infantry.
Cathay Williams became William Cathay
And no one was to know
The secret of her identity
As a soldier she did grow.
The troops moved west to Ft. Cummings
To keep the Apache at bay.
There were one hundred and one enlisted men
And among them was William Cathay.
After two years as a soldier
In the 38th Company A
William went to see the doctor
And her secret came out that day
Discharged as a Buffalo Soldier
Cathay did her very best
As she continued to make her way
In this land they called the West.
Because of her illegal enlistment
Her pension passed her by
But she picked herself up and moved on
And never questioned why.
Life ended for Cathay Williams
At the age of eighty-two
She lived a long independent life
A life that was tried but true.
A salute to Cathay Williams
The hero of this rhyme
A special woman of the west
A legend in her time.
© July 1999, Linda Kirkpatrick
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