Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Cathay Willams-TG Buffalo Soldier
Cathay Williams has the distinction of being the only female member of the legendary Buffalo Soldiers. How did she do so in a time when the Army did not allow women to enter their ranks? Read on.
Cathay Williams was born into slavery in 1842 in Independence, MO.
She worked as a house slave for a wealthy Jefferson City, MO planter
named William Johnson until his death, which happened to coincide
with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
After being freed by Union soldiers Cathay began working for the Union Army as a paid servant. She grew to like the discipline and regimentation of military life as she traveled with the Union Army throughout the war. Cathay's travels took her to New Orleans, Savannah GA, Macon GA and other locales.
Because she was so responsible and dependable, she was recruited to go to Washington DC to work as a cook and laundress for General Phil Sheridan and his staff. She accompanied Gen. Sheridan when he made his Shenandoah Valley raids. From Virginia, Cathay journeyed to Iowa and later to St. Louis. She witnessed battles in Arkansas and Louisiana. She watched as Union soldiers destroyed cotton and burned a captured Confederate gunboat on the Red River at Shreveport. All this exposure to military activity gave her an understanding and a comfort zone about military life that proved to be invaluable in the next phase of her life as a free person.
On July 28 1866, Congress enacted legislation authorizing six all-Black units within the military. Two of the units were the famed 9th and 10th Cavalry. The other four were infantry units initially named the 38th, 39th, 40th and the 41st Infantry. In 1869 the four Black infantry units were reorganized and consolidated into two units, the 24th and the 25th Infantry. These remaining Army units became collectively known as the 'Buffalo Soldiers' after the moniker was bestowed upon them by the Plains Indians because of their fighting ability and short curly hair.
On November 15, 1866, shortly after her job with the army ended, Cathay Williams disguised her gender and joined the 38th Infantry, Company A, in St. Louis as Pvt. William Cathay. The Army didn't require physical examinations at the time and she possessed a big boned 5'7" frame. Only her cousin and a friend who had also enrolled in the unit were aware of her true identity. She contracted smallpox not long after her enlistment and as soon as she recovered joined the rest of her unit on the long march west from St. Louis via Kansas to New Mexico.
She and the rest of A Company arrived at Fort Cummings, NM on October 1. 1867 with orders to protect wagon trains travelling along the Santa Fe Trail from Apache attack. Cathay became ill in 1868 and it was at that time the post doctor finally discovered her true gender. She was discharged from the Army on October 14, 1868 and moved on to Pueblo, CO.
Years later, when a reporter asked her why she joined the army, Cathay stated, "I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends."
Her pension claim was denied in February 1892 and she lived out her final days ironically in a town that would later become renowed for the SRS surgeries performed there, Trinidad, CO.