Cathay Williams (September 1844 – 1892) was an American soldier. She is the first African-American female to enlist, and the only documented to serve in the United States Army posing as a man, under the pseudonym William Cathay.
Williams was born in Independence, Missouri to a free man of color and a woman in bondage, making her legal status also that of a slave. During her adolescence, Williams worked as a house servant on the Johnson plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1861 Union forces occupied Jefferson City in the early stages of the American Civil War. At that time, captured slaves were officially designated by the Union as “contraband,” and many were forced to serve in military support roles such as cooks, laundresses, or nurses. At age seventeen, Williams was impressed into serving the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel William Plummer Benton.
For the next few years, Williams travelled with the 8th Indiana, accompanying the soldiers on their marches through Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia. She was present at theBattle of Pea Ridge and the Red River Campaign. At one time she was transferred to Little Rock, where she would have seen uniformed African-American men serving as soldiers, which may have inspired her own interest in military service. Later, Williams was transferred to Washington, D.C., where she served with General Philip Sheridan‘s command. When the war ended, Williams was working at Jefferson Barracks.
Despite the prohibition against women serving in the military, Williams enlisted in the United States Regular Army on 15 November 1866 at St. Louis, Missouri for a three year engagement, passing herself off as a man. Only two others are known to have been privy to the deception, her cousin and a friend, both of whom were fellow soldiers in her regiment.
Shortly after her enlistment, Williams contracted smallpox, was hospitalized and rejoined her unit, which by then was posted in New Mexico. Possibly due to the effects of smallpox, the New Mexico heat, or the cumulative effects of years of marching, her body began to show signs of strain. She was frequently hospitalized. The post surgeon finally discovered she was a woman and informed the post commander. She was discharged from the Army by her commanding officer, Captain Charles E. Clarke on October 14, 1868.
In September 1891, a doctor employed by the Pension Bureau examined Williams. Despite the fact that she suffered from neuralgia and diabetes, had had all her toes amputated, and could only walk with a crutch, the doctor decided she did not qualify for disability payments. Her application was rejected.
The exact date of Williams’ death is unknown, but it is assumed she died shortly after being denied a pension, probably sometime in 1892. Her simple grave marker would have been made of wood and deteriorated long ago. Thus her final resting place is now unknown.