Both black and female Americans fought for years to receive a place in the military equal to that of white men. Early African American servicemembers served honorably despite the racism they faced from citizens, the government, and even fellow servicemembers. And among the first women in the US military are the courageous souls who had to pose as men to be allowed to fight for their country.
One pioneering woman didn’t have to face just racism or just sexism in her quest to serve in the military. She had to face both. Her name was Cathay Williams, and she was the first known African American woman to enlist in the military and the only known female buffalo soldier.
At the time she enlisted, slavery had just ended with the Northern victory in the Civil War. Black men were only allowed to serve in segregated regiments and it was illegal for a woman to enlist in the military.
Needless to say, it was not a time that was friendly to African American women.
Williams was born to an enslaved mother and free father in September of 1844 in Independence, Missouri. Not much is known about her early life other than that she was a house slave on a Jefferson City plantation. She lived here until 1861, the first year of the Civil War.
That year, Union soldiers occupied Jefferson City and took enslaved people, including Williams, from their masters in the area. Enslaved men and women that were taken were considered “contraband of war” by the North.
In a later interview, Williams recounted what happened: “…when the war broke out and the United States soldiers came to Jefferson City they took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock. Col. Benton of the 12th Army Corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go.”
When taken to Little Rock, Williams was a teenager, around 16 or 17. Like most enslaved people at the time, she was illiterate and had only experienced life in bondage.
Many of the “contraband” slaves were made to do work for the military. Williams was forced to do laundry and cook.
She said of this early time with the Army, “I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook. I learned to cook after going to Little Rock and was with the army at The Battle of Pea Ridge.”
She traveled with the army as a paid servant to Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, and other southern locations. She also visited Virginia, Iowa, and Jefferson Barracks, and at one point served under General Sheridan.
Her service with the army allowed her to witness Army life firsthand. She said she “saw the soldiers burn lots of cotton and was at Shreveport when the rebel gunboats were captured and burned on Red River.” Perhaps this exposure to military life influenced her later decision to enlist.
The Civil War ended in 1865, and the following year, the Army Reorganization Act created six segregated African American regiments: the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantries as well as the 9th and 10th Cavalries.
These buffalo soldier regiments offered black men the chance for a job that was better than much of what they could get at the time. It also offered new opportunities for an education, a pension, and health care.
It did not, however, permit the enlistment of any women. Women were allowed to serve as cooks, administrators, nurses, and other support roles, but it was illegal for them to enlist as soldiers. Some women, though, had gone undercover as men to be able to serve—it is estimated that between 400 and 750 women did so during the Civil War alone.
Williams enlisted in the military in November of 1866, telling the recruiting officer that her name was William Cathey and she was a 22-year-old cook. She could have been as young as 16 and lied about her age, which was a common practice among enlistees.
The medical examination for entry apparently did not reveal that she was a woman. According to the officer, she was 5’9″, which was especially tall for the time.
She was assigned to the 38th Infantry, Company A, under Captain Charles E. Clarke, and was assigned to serve for three years.
Williams served in different areas with the 38th Infantry, one of the all-black regiments known as buffalo soldiers. Her friend and cousin, both serving in the same regiment as her, knew she was a woman, but none of the other soldiers did.
As for the reasons why she joined the military, she had this to say: “[A cousin and a particular friend] 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.”
Though no evidence suggests she ever saw combat, she performed normal garrison duties, which included marching and guard duty.
Unfortunately, she got smallpox early in her service and was hospitalized. During the rest of her time in the military, she was admitted to four hospitals for varying reported illnesses. Even after the war, she suffered from illness (once spending a year and a half in the hospital) and later had to have her toes removed, suggesting that she could have had diabetes or another illness.
None of the hospital visits during her time with the Army revealed the fact that she was a woman until two years after she enlisted, when the post surgeon discovered her gender.
How her gender could go undiscovered with so many hospitalizations is unclear. It gives rise to the question of whether her hospital treatment was as high quality as it could have been. Or perhaps she somehow avoided treatment that would require her to undress.
The End of Her Service
Williams was honorably discharged on October 14, 1868, with a certificate of disability. The surgeon’s description said that her condition “dates prior to enlistment.”
Her fellow soldiers apparently didn’t react very well to the discovery. According to Williams, “The men all wanted to get rid of me after they found out I was a woman. Some of them acted real bad to me.”
After her service, Williams returned to using her real name and dressing as a woman and went to New Mexico to work as a cook and laundress. She then moved to Pueblo, Colorado, where she married. Unfortunately, however, her husband stole a good deal of money, a watch and chain, and horses from her.
As if going undercover to join an all-male military and then moving to the west wasn’t enough to prove the independent spirit of this woman, she had her thieving husband arrested, then moved to Trinidad, Colorado.
In Trinidad, Williams worked as a seamstress and was known as Kate Williams. At the time, the area was relatively diverse, with a sizable population of Hispanics and other minority ethnicities as well as European railroad workers from a variety of nations. And with folks of all different backgrounds, Trinidad was not as openly racist as the South.
“I like this town,” Williams later said, “I know all the good people here…I shall never live in the states again.”
It was here that she was interviewed by a reporter from the St. Louis Daily Times. She gave her story, supplying future generations with all her own words of her experience as the first black woman to serve as a soldier in the US Army.
Around 1890, Williams became seriously ill and petitioned for a military disability pension. Her examination by an Army surgeon, however, determined that she was not disabled, despite the fact that she had amputated toes, walked with a crutch, and had military records of illnesses including smallpox, rheumatism, the “itch,” and neuralgia.
Other women who had served in the military pretending to be men, such as Deborah Sampson, received pension, but Williams was denied. Notably, the women before her who had received pension were all white.
Finally, Williams lived in Trinidad until she died. Her burial place and the exact date of her death are both unknown.
The Legacy of African American Women in the Military
Despite the hurdles black women have had to overcome to be able to serve in the military, today, they account for about 31% of women serving in the US military. When you consider that they make up about 13% of women in the US, this becomes a startling testament to the contributions of black women to the military.
According to a report by Julia Melin of Swarthmore College, the representation of African American women in the military is “higher than that of men or women of any other racial or ethnic group.”
This doesn’t mean that things are exactly where we should want them. There are still struggles faced by black female servicemembers, highlighted by the recent hair policies that targeted black women’s hairstyles and, more generally, the increasing number of rape reports in the military.
However, it certainly shows something awe-inspiring when a group of people historically barred from service because of both race and sex become the most-represented group in the military.
African American women have faced discrimination on every front in their journey to be able to fight for our country. We must always honor and remember their service and the sacrifices that have been made for it to be possible, and we must always keep striving toward a fully inclusive military.