The Brazen Buffalo Soldier
A young Missouri recruit harbored a heckuva secret.
During the American Civil War, the U.S. government formed several all-black regiments known as the United States Colored Troops. After the war, the Army was reorganized to focus its efforts on the Indian Wars, and Congress authorized the formation of two black cavalry regiments and four black infantry regiments, headquartered in Louisiana and Texas. The all-black regiments fought on the western frontier, where manpower was sparse because many troops had been withdrawn to rejoin the Union army in the east.
One of the Buffalo Soldiers (so nicknamed by Native Americans because of their wavy black hair and fierce fighting skills) was a young Missouri recruit named William Cathey. Probably just 16 years old — though he listed 22 as his age on his enlistment document — the 5-foot-9-inch-tall newcomer passed the perfunctory medical examination, was declared able to shoot and to march, and became a member of the 38th Infantry.
In 1867, the unit received its marching orders: They were to travel from Kansas, where a cholera epidemic was raging, to New Mexico — more than 500 miles away. They traipsed across vast plains and desert terrain, forded rivers, and traversed Indian Territory, crossing lofty mountains higher than anything they had seen before, under the heat of the summer sun.
Cathey was unremarkable in many ways, performing duties as required, making friends with fellow soldiers, and staying out of trouble. But although he appeared healthy, he was frequently ill. The soldier required several hospital stays, enduring smallpox and rheumatism among other disorders. Yet despite the constant medical supervision, the doctors never discovered that Cathey was hiding a secret — one that, if exposed, would have resulted in immediate dismissal from the Army.
Cathey’s secret would not be discovered for two years, after the soldier had become tired of the arduous Army life and, perhaps, tired of keeping the secret. The next time the soldier was sent to the infirmary, the mystery was revealed: The doctors discovered that Pvt. William Cathey was actually Cathay Williams, a female ex-slave who had enlisted as a means to support herself.
It was illegal for females to serve in the U.S. Army, and the private’s discharge documents refer to “him,” ostensibly to protect the commanding officers from court marshal. That medical personnel never discovered that he actually was a she attests to the soldiers’ poor medical care.
For two years — 1866 to 1868 — this uneducated, illiterate woman had fooled the doctors, her fellow soldiers, and the entire U.S. Army. How she managed to suppress such a major piece of information is not known. After all, she marched beside the men in her unit, stood guard duty, reported to officers, ate with the troops, and slept in the same barracks or fields that they did.
It was not unusual for women to join both the Union and Confederate forces disguised as men, but Williams remains the only documented female Buffalo Soldier and African-American woman to serve in the Army before the 1948 law that allowed women to enlist. Melodie Lynn Thompson, an author and actor who portrays Williams onstage, declares that, “she holds the record for the longest period of known gender-disguised service in military history.”
Gloria Reed Austin, executive director of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, says, “I’m impressed with Cathay Williams’ ability to deal with the times she was living in, an ability that is still found inside women, to take whatever circumstances that beset them and use whatever skills they have to survive. This was a way for Cathay Williams to provide for herself. Her desire, as she stated, was to never become a burden on her family members for her livelihood. She saw entering the military as a way to do that.”
In providing for herself and serving her country, Cathay Williams ensured her place in history, helping to pave the way for many more women to come.
For more information on the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame, call 817.922.9999 or visit www.cowboysofcolor.org