When Congress passed an
act authorizing the establishment of the first all Black units of the
military, later to become known as "Buffalo
Soldiers," Cathay Williams, a former slave, joined the Army. At that
time, women were not allowed to serve as soldiers so Williams posed
as a man, calling herself William Cathay.
Williams was born into slavery in Independence,
Missouri in 1842. She worked as a house slave for William Johnson, a
wealthy planter in Jefferson City,
Missouri until his death. Shortly after
Civil War broke out she was freed by Union soldiers and soon went to
work for the Federal Army as a paid servant. While working in this
capacity, she served Colonel Thomas Hart Benton while he was in Little
Arkansas as well as
General Philip Sheridan and his staff, experiencing military
life first hand. Sheridan brought her with him to Washington to serve as a
cook and laundress.
While traveling with them, she witnessed the
Shenandoah Valley raids in Virginia, and afterwards continued to travel
with them to Iowa,
St. Louis, New Orleans, Savannah, and Macon.
Artist rendition of Cathay Williams by John Will Davis,
Will Davis Artroom.
When the war was over, Williams wanted to maintain
her financial independence and in November 1866, she enlisted as William
Cathay in the 38th U.S. Infantry, Company A in
Missouri. At that time, only a cursory medical examination was required
and she was quickly found to be fit for duty. There were only two people
that knew her true identify – a cousin and a friend, who faithfully kept
her secret. 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
On February 13, 1867, Williams was sent to Jefferson
Missouri and a few months later, in April, the troops marched to