Cathay Williams / William Cathey: Buffalo Soldier

My father was a freeman, but my mother was a slave, belonging to William Johnson, a wealthy farmer who lived at the time I was born near Independence, Jackson County, Missouri.[1]

So begins the story of Ms. Cathay Williams, the first documented woman to enlist in the U. S. Army. Although her military service did not begin until November 15, 1866, Cathay made her career choice based on her experience with the Union Army, which began in late 1861 when she was “impressed” by Colonel William P. Benton of the 13th Army Corps. She and her family had moved from Independence to Jefferson City, but her master died there and his slaves were evidently cut adrift:

                        United States soldiers came to Jefferson City they took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock. Colonel Benton of the 13th army corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go. He wanted me to cook for the officers, but I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook. [2]

Jefferson Barracks. From Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated, by J.C. Wild and Lewis Thomas. Plate XI. Lithograph by J.C. Wild, 1841. Missouri Historical Society Library. NS 28389. Scan © 2004, Missouri Historical Society.

Seventeen-year-old Cathay learned to cook, however, and accompanied the 13th to Pea Ridge. After that battle, the command moved throughout Arkansas and Louisiana, burning cotton. Cathay went with them and was present when rebel gunboats were captured and burned on the Red River at Shreveport during the unsuccessful Red River Campaign.[3] She continued her cooking duties, following the army to New Orleans, then, by way of the Gulf of Mexico, to Savannah, and finally Macon, Georgia. Cathay claims in the interview from which these quotes are taken that she was eventually sent to Washington City, serving as both a cook and washerwoman for General Phillip Sheridan and his staff. Near the end of the war, she ended up at Jefferson Barracks, in eastern Missouri, remaining there until at least April 1865. Jefferson Barracks was the site of a major medical hospital that served soldiers on both sides of the war. In 1862 the Western Sanitary Commission built its largest hospital there as well.[4] Cathay may have stayed in Missouri, cooking and cleaning for one of these institutions until her services were no longer needed. The fact that the regimental headquarters for the 38th U. S. Infantry was located at Jefferson Barracks was probably instrumental in her future.

photo alleged to be Cathay Williams

After the Civil War, employment opportunities were scarce for many African-Americans, especially in the South. Many of them looked to military service, where they could earn not only steady pay but education, health care, and a pension. When Congress reorganized the peacetime regular army in the summer of 1866 it recognized the military merits of black soldiers by authorizing two segregated regiments of black cavalry, the Ninth United States Cavalry and the Tenth United States Cavalry and the 24th, 25th, 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry Regiments.  Orders were given to transfer the troops to the western war arena, where they would join the army’s fight with the Indians. White officers commanded all of the black regiments at that time. Cathay already had experience living in an army camp and she decided that in order to earn her way, she would enlist. On November 15, 1866, Cathay Williams joined the Army using the name William Cathey. She informed her recruiting officer that she was a 22-year-old cook. He described her as 5′ 9″, with black eyes, black hair and black complexion. An Army surgeon examined Cathey and determined the recruit was “fit for duty,” thus sealing her fate in history as the first documented African-American woman to enlist in the Army, although U.S. Army regulations forbade the enlistment of women until 1948. Cathey was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry, became a Buffalo Soldier, and traveled throughout the west with her unit.[5]

                        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.[6]

The muster rolls reveal that William Cathey was an average soldier. She neither distinguished herself nor disgraced her uniform while in the service. She was never singled out for praise or punishment. She was one of the tallest privates in her company, and she probably never experienced close physical scrutiny during her service, despite hospital visits. From her enlistment date until February 1867, William Cathey was stationed at Jefferson Barracks. Her time there would have been spent in training and getting used to the daily routine of army camp life. It is uncertain, though, just how long she actually was present at the installation. On February 13, Company A of the 38th Infantry was officially organized, and William Cathey, along with 75 other black privates, was mustered into that company. Shortly afterward, she was in an unnamed St. Louis hospital, suffering an undocumented illness. By April 1867 William Cathey and Company A had marched to Fort Riley, Kansas. On April 30, she was described as “ill in quarters,” along with 15 other privates. Because they were sick, their pay was docked 10 dollars per month for three months, so one might presume William Cathey was not malingering. She did not return to duty for two weeks. [7]

On July 20, 1867, Company A arrived at Fort Union, New Mexico, after a march of 536 miles. On September 7, they began the march to Fort Cummings, New Mexico, arriving October 1. The unit was stationed there for eight months. When the company was not on the march, the privates did garrison duty, drilled and trained, and went scouting for signs of hostile Native Americans. William Cathey participated in her share of the obligations facing Company A. There is no record that the company ever engaged the enemy or saw any form of direct combat during this time.[8]

                     I was as that paper says, I was never put in the guard house, no bayonet was ever put to my back. I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the army,[9]

In January 1868, after about eight months off the sick list, her health began deteriorating. On the 27th of that month, she was admitted to the post hospital at Fort Cummings, citing rheumatism. She returned to duty three days later. On March 20, she went back to the hospital with the same complaint. Again, she returned to duty within three days. On June 6, the company marched forty-seven miles to Fort Bayard, New Mexico. This was the last fort at which William Cathey lived during her army stint. On July 13, she was admitted to the hospital at Fort Bayard, and diagnosed with neuralgia.* She did not report back to duty for a month. This was the last recorded medical treatment of William Cathey while in the military. The fact that five hospital visits failed to reveal that William Cathey was a woman raises questions about the quality of medical care available to the soldiers of the U.S. Army, or at least to the African-American soldiers. Clearly, she never fully undressed during her hospital stays. Perhaps she objected to any potentially intrusive procedures out of fear of discovery. There is no record of the treatment given her at the hospitals. There is every indication that whatever treatments she received, they did not work.

Cathay Williams/William Cathey’s Discharge papers

On October 14, 1868, William Cathey and two other privates in Company A, 38th Infantry were discharged at Ft. Bayard on a surgeon’s certificate of disability. William Cathey’s certificate included statements from both the captain of her company and the post’s assistant surgeon. The captain’s statement read 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. He is 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.[10]

Cathay Williams, also known as William Cathey, served her country for just over two years. The interview she gave to the St. Louis Daily Times in 1876 gives us the only clues as to what happened to her after leaving the service:

                After leaving the army I went to Pueblo, Colorado, where I made money by cooking and washing. I got married while there, but my husband was no account. He stole my watch and chain, a hundred dollars in money and my team of horses and wagon. I had him arrested and put in jail, and then I came here. I  like this town. I know all the good people here, and I expect to get rich yet. I have not got my land warrant. I thought I would wait till the railroad came and then take my land near the depot. Grant owns all this land around here, and it won’t      cost me anything. I shall never live in the states again. You see I’ve got a good sewing machine and I get washing to do and clothes to make. I want to get along and not be a burden to my friends or relatives.[11]

At some point in late 1889 or early 1890, Cathay Williams was hospitalized in Trinidad, Colorado for nearly a year and a half. She filed in June 1891 for an invalid pension based upon her military service. Her application brought to light the fact that an African-American woman had served in the Regular Army. Her original application for the pension, sworn before the local County Clerk gave her age as forty-one. She stated that she was one and the same with the William Cathey who served as a private in Company A, 38th U.S. Infantry for just under two full years. She claimed in her application that she was suffering deafness, contracted in the army. She also referred to her rheumatism and neuralgia. She declared eligibility for an invalid pension because she could no longer sustain herself by manual labor. On September 9, 1891, a medical doctor, in Trinidad, employed by the Pension Bureau, examined Cathay Williams. The doctor described her as 5′ 7″, 160 pounds, large, stout, and forty-nine years old. He reported that she could hear a conversation and therefore was not deaf. He also reported no physical changes in her joints, muscles, or tendons indicating rheumatism or neuralgia. Most horrifying, the doctor reported that all her toes on both feet had been amputated, and she could only walk with the aid of a crutch. This did not happen during her time in service, however.[12]

Pension Requests

In February 1892 the Pension Bureau rejected her claim for an Invalid Pension. After this, Cathay Williams disappears from the pages of history. She is not listed in the 1900 Federal Census, so from this may be surmised that she probably died between 1892 and 1900, at the age of eighty-two. A pioneer even if she did not know it, Cathay Williams was the first female Buffalo Soldier. This improbable, independent, strong black woman should not be overlooked. In July 2016, a bronze bust of Cathay Williams, surrounded by a small rose garden, was unveiled outside the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, Kansas.

General Barbara Lynne Owens, one of two black female generals currently serving in the Army Reserve, said she learned about Williams “a long time ago.” Owens called her an early trailblazer who set the path for all black female soldiers who have followed, saying:

If she had not done what she did, I would not be standing here today.[13]

    *     *     *

[1] St. Louis Daily Times, January 2, 1876 [online version available at (accessed February 14, 2018)].

[2] Ibid

[3] United States Government Printing Office, Congressional Serial Set, (reprint, Ulan Press, 2012), 270-273. [online version available at (accessed February 13, 2018)].

[4] Jefferson Barracks Museums, St. Louis County, Missouri Parks and Recreation. [online version available at (accessed February 12, 2018)].

[5] and (accessed February 10, 2018).

[6] St. Louis Daily Times, January 2, 1876 [online version available at (accessed February 14, 2018)].


[8] Ibid.

[9] St. Louis Daily Times, January 2, 1876 [online version available at (accessed February 14, 2018)].


[11] St. Louis Daily Times, January 2, 1876 [online version available at (accessed February 14, 2018)].

[12] (accessed February 14, 2018)].

[13] Miranda Davis, “Monument to female Buffalo Soldier is dedicated in Leavenworth,” The Kansas City Star, July 22, 2016. [online version available at (accessed February 13, 2018)].


12 Responses to Cathay Williams / William Cathey: Buffalo Soldier

  1. What a fascinating story. Frontier service after the war was pretty awful for all the Army, but especially for the Buffalo Soldiers. I am glad she has been honored, though like Henry Johnson of WWI fame, the recognition comes very late.

    1. I agree. We ECW writers were tasked to find some uncommon examples of African-American contributions to the war effort, and I thought Cathay was an excellent example.

  2. I find it hard to believe that she was ‘examined’ by a doctor when she enlisted and wasn’t ‘discovered’ to be a woman. Was the service so desperate for bodies that the only real criteria to consider was whether the recruit in question was breathing?

    1. Pretty much yes. There were a fair number (in the hundreds) of women who were sworn into federal service (at least in the Union Army) that were enlisted into service and not discovered to have been of an unapproved sex until they were either wounded or gave birth.

      If you would like to do some reading, I can give you some sources.

    2. Apparently breathing was just about all that mattered. I can imagine not dropping trou, but not even a chest exam for the breathing part? But–we are finding more and more examples of women masking their gender and serving. I think it says more about the medical world than anything else. Thanks for reading.

  3. Thank you for writing this article. You are very busy preparing for presentations thoughout California and you are finishing your book on Elmer Ellsworth. Im looking forward to attending your presentation in Redlands, California in March. It is great to hear of great African-American heroes of the United States Civil War and that era.

  4. A remarkable story, outside of the mainstream narratives about the USCT and Buffalo Soldiers. Thanks for digging around to find the sources you used, putting this together and sharing it with all of us.

    1. Google her up and look at the variety of images. We didn’t use any here because they are “art” and belong to someone else, but they are fascinating. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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