I recently ran across the interesting story of Cathay Williams, a female buffalo soldier. I became interested in this legendary woman after a neighbor brought an article about her to my attention.
In the article, “Cathay Williams, First Female Buffalo Solider,” author Mary Lawler writes about Cathay Williams’ early life. Cathay was born into slavery around Independence, Missouri, in 1842. Her mother was a slave named Martha Williams and her father is unknown, some researchers believe he was a manumitted Negro.
Cathay grew up and worked as a “house-girl” for William Johnson, a wealthy Jefferson City, Missouri planter. Johnson died shortly after the Civil War started. Union soldiers liberated Cathay, after which she remained with the Army working as a paid servant.
Colonel Benton, of the 13th Army Corps, took Cathay and a number of other servants to Little Rock, Arkansas. There she became a good and desirable cook for the Union Army.
In a 1997 oral presentation to the West Texas Historical Society, “Black Woman Solider,” researcher Cynthia Savage described how Cathay Williams occupied a front row seat to the Civil War. She traveled with the Union Army and witnessed battles in Arkansas and Louisiana. She watched as Union soldiers burned cotton and saw a captured rebel gunboat burn on the Red River at Shreveport.
According to Savage, Cathay traveled as far as New Orleans, Savannah, and Macon, as well as many places in between. Because she was so responsible and dependable, she was recruited to go to Washington to work as cook and laundress for Gen. Phil Sheridan and his staff. She traveled with Gen. Sheridan when he made his Shenandoah Valley raids. From Virginia, Cathay went to Iowa and then to St. Louis. All this exposure to military activity gave her an understanding of military life that proved to be valuable in the next phase of her life as a free person.
Cathay Williams participated in the Army during the Civil War to the extent that a woman could. At that time it was illegal for women to serve in the military as soldiers. However, black men were able to participate more fully. The Union Army enlisted nearly 180,000 black men to fight. As many as 33,000 died during the Civil War.
At the end of the war, these soldiers deserved an opportunity to continue their careers. The Army offered them that opportunity. Additionally, Williams and other slaves freed from southern plantations also needed employment.
Without going into the politics of the time, on July 28 1866, Congress enacted legislation authorizing six all black units within the military. Two of the units were the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and four were infantry units, the 38th, 39th, 40th and the 41st. In later years the four-infantry units were reorganized into two units, the 24th and the 25th Infantry.
These four Army units, two infantry and two cavalry, became known as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” so named 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. At the time, there was no requirement for a physical examination and she enlisted using the name William Cathay.
She served in Company A, under the command of Captain Charles Clarke, at Ft. Cummings, New Mexico. During this time the Buffalo Soldiers had what one researcher called “multiple incidents of insubordination.”
Speaking about those turbulent times, Cathay called herself a good soldier. She said that she was never in the guardhouse and always did her duty. William Cathey’s discharge from the United States Army is dated October 14, 1868.
Years later, a reporter asked her why she joined the army. Cathay reportedly answered the question much like today’s soldier would answer, saying, “I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.”
Today, much is known about the life and times of this American heroine, as well as many other Buffalo Soldiers, because of the efforts of Gen. Colin Powell. In 1982, while serving as deputy Commander at Fort Leavenworth, then Brigadier General Powell originated “The Buffalo Soldiers Project.”
Readers desiring more information about this project may write the Buffalo Solider Educational and Historical Committee, P.O. Box 3372, Fort Leavenworth, KS 66027 or from my web site at http://www.majorcox.com (see our links page).
Originally Published: 15 July 1998, Montgomery Advertiser
© Copyright – 1998 – Major W. Cox and Montgomery Advertiser.