"My Father a was a freeman, but my mother a slave, belonging to William Johnson, a wealthy farmer who lived at the time I was born near Independence, Jackson county, Missouri. While I was a small girl my master and family moved to Jefferson City. My master died there and 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.
On November 15, 1866 Cathay Williams became a soldier. She enlisted with the United States Regular Army in St. Louis, Missouri, intending on a three year tour of duty. She had never been in the army before. She informed the recruiting officer that she was 22 years old and by occupation a cook. She named Independence, Missouri the place of her birth. When asked her name, she must have replied William Cathay. As she was illiterate, her papers read William Cathey, and by that name and spelling she would be known the rest of her army career. The recruiting officer described William Cathey that day as 5'9", with black eyes, black hair, and black complexion.
An army surgeon examined William Cathey upon enlistment, and determined that the recruit was fit for duty. We can assume the exam was cursory, only checking for obvious and superficial impairments or abnormalities. If either the surgeon or the recruiting officer realized that William Cathey was female they kept the fact to themselves. It seems highly unlikely they knew the truth, because 19th centurly U.S. Army regulations forbade the regular enlistment or commissioning of women.
Other than the place of her birth, nothing is known of this woman prior to her enlistment in the U.S. Army. Information about her family life and circumstances prior to enlistment, including whether she was born slave or free, has not been found. Even her age at the time of enlistment is uncertain. She might have been only 16 years old and lied about her age, a not uncommon ploy among her male counterparts. The army in the 19th century hardly ever checked the veracity of age claims, or asked for proof of identity.
Her reasons for becoming a soldier are a matter of conjecture, as she never stated them. Was she fleeing an unhappy life with family or other relations? Was she an orphan? She might have had compelling reasons to change her identity, such as running from something or someone. Perhaps she viewed the army as a way to get out of Missouri, or get away from home. Maybe she found cooking for a living unsatisfactory. Or did she simply want the adventure of being a soldier?
It seems reasonable that she viewed the army as a job open to African-Americans, with prospects for a decent livelihood and a semblance of respect. We can presume Cathay Williams had no substantial means of support other than herself. (There is no evidence she ever married.) She was uneducated, and therefore consigned to laboring for her wages. As a black woman in 1866, her prospects were dim and low-paying. As a black man in the army she would earn more money than a black female cook.
Whatever her motivations in joining the army, she may not have realized she was setting a precedent. While she was not the first woman to enlist in the army -- women disguised as men fought in the volunteer armies of the Revolution and the Civil War -- Cathay Williams may be the first to have served in the United States Regular Army in the 19th century. To date, she is the only documented African-American woman who served in the U.S. Army prior to the official introduction of women.
Very little is known about the details of William Cathey's service because personnel records were not kept for Regular Army enlisted soldiers during the 19th century. The unit muster rolls, compiled every two months, rated the company as a whole, listed its members, and occasionally included comments regarding the individual soldier. The muster rolls reveal that William Cathey did not have an illustrious, or even an exciting army career. She was an average soldier. She neither distinguished herself nor disgraced her uniform while in the service. She was never singled out for praise or punishment. The opinions held of William Cathey by peers and officers is unknown. Whether she was congenial or aloof, outspoken or retiring is a mystery.
Furthermore, the records cannot tell us if she faced difficulties concealing the fact she was female. It may have been easy for her. She was one of the tallest privates in her company, and she probably never experienced close physical scrutiny during her service, despite hospital visits. The mechanics of how she successfully concealed her femininity are left to speculation. We do not know whether or not she found the necessary deception stressful.
Upon enlistment, William Cathey was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry. The 38th Infantry was officially established in August 1866 as a designated, segregated African-American unit. (The 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantries were also designated black units that year.) The officers of the segregated African-American regiments were white, and the regimental headquarters of the 38th was located at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. The 38th through 41st Infantries were short-lived, however. In March 1869, after William Cathey's discharge, they were consolidated into the historically familiar African-American 24th and 25th Infantries.
From her enlistment date until February 1867, William Cathey was stationed at Jefferson Barracks. Her time there would have been spent in training and the daily routine of army camp life. It is uncertain, though, just how long she actually was present at the installation. On February 13, Company A of the 38th Infantry was officially organized, and William Cathey, along with 75 other black privates, was mustered into that company. At the time of this organization, however, she was in an unnamed St. Louis hospital, suffering an undocumented illness. How long she was hospitalized also is not recorded.
By April 1867 William Cathey and Company A had marched to Fort Riley, Kansas. On the 10th of that month, William Cathey went to the post hospital complaining of "itch". (Army itch was usually scabies, eczema, lice, or a combination thereof, the perceived result of the filth of camp life. On April 30, she was described as ill in quarters, along with 15 other privates. Because they were sick, their pay was docked 10 dollars per month for three months, so we can presume William Cathey was not malingering. She did not return to duty until May 14, which indicates that something other than itch bothered her. In June 1867 the company was at Fort Harker, Kansas.
Indeed, the company was destined to travel. On July 20, 1867, it arrived at Fort Union, New Mexico, after a march of 536 miles. On September 7, Company A began the march to Fort Cummings, New Mexico, arriving October 1. The unit was stationed there for eight months.
It appears that William Cathey withstood the marches as well as any man in her unit. When the company was not on the march, the privates did garrison duty, drilled and trained, and went scouting for signs of hostile Native Americans. William Cathey participated in her share of the obligations facing Company A. There is no record that the company ever engaged the enemy or saw any form of direct combat while William Cathey was a member.
In January 1868 her health began deteriorating, after about eight months off the sick list. On the 27th of that month, she was admitted to the post hospital at Fort Cummings, citing rheumatism. She returned to duty three days later. On March 20, she went back to that hospital with the same complaint. Again, she returned to duty within three days.
On June 6, the company marched for Fort Bayard, New Mexico, completing the 47 mile trek the next day. This was the last fort at which William Cathey lived during her army stint. On July 13, she was admitted into the hospital at Fort Bayard, and diagnosed with neuralgia. (Neuralgia was a catch-all term for any acute pain caused by a nerve, or parts of the nervous system. It could be a symptom of a wide range of diseases. She did not report back to duty for a month. This was the last recorded medical treatment of William Cathey while in the military.
During her military career, she was in four hospitals, on five separate occasions, for varying amounts of time, and apparently, no one discovered that William Cathey was a woman living as a man. It seems fairly certain in the Victorian age, in an army hospital, even out West, that the masquerade would have been noted had it been uncovered. It is a foregone conclusion that she would have been discharged from the army immediately had that discovery been made.
The fact that five hospital visits failed to reveal that William Cathey was a woman raises questions about the quality of medical care, even by mid-l9th century standards, available to the soldiers of the U.S. Army, or at least to the African-American soldiers. Clearly, she never fully undressed during her hospital stays. Perhaps she objected to any potentially intrusive procedures out of fear of discovery. There is no record of the treatment given her at the hospitals. There is every indication that whatever treatments she received, they did not work.
On October 14, 1868 William Cathey and two other privates in Company A, 38th Infantry were discharged at Fort Bayard on a surgeon's certificate of disability. William Cathey's certificate included statements from both the captain of her company and the post's assistant surgeon. The captain's statement read that Cathey had been under his command since May 20, 1867 "... and has been since feeble both physically and mentally, and much of the time quite unfit for duty. The origin of his infirmities is unknown to me." The surgeon's statement claimed Cathey was of "...a feeble habit. He is continually on sick report without benefit. He is unable to do military duty.... This condition dates prior to enlistment." Thus, with such wording on the certificate of disability for discharge, ended the brief army career of Cathay Williams, alias William Cathey. She served her country for just under two years.
Was William Cathey as infirm as the certificate states? Those statements by the captain and the surgeon lend the impression she was perennially ill. Yet the available records, admittedly scant in detail, indicate she went for months without seeking medical treatment. Perhaps she was sick in quarters more often than recorded on the company rolls, or maybe she was ill more often than just when she went to the hospital. But if her infirmities pre-dated enlistment, why did the recruiting officer and the surgeon in St. Louis make her a soldier?
Was she mentally feeble, as her captain claimed? That is open to debate. Her illiteracy points to a dearth of education, which is far different from stupidity or mental incapacity. One fact is certain. She was bright enough, or wily enough, to conceal the fact she was female for nearly two years. Her successful imposture argues for either some mental ability on her part, or a lack of scrutiny and observation on the army's part.
In any event, in October 1868 Cathay Williams was on her own in New Mexico, far away from any relations she may have had in Missouri, and she was sick. Some regrettably sparse information is known about her life after the army. She resumed the garb and identity of a woman, in fact of herself, Cathay Williams. She travelled to Fort Union and worked as a cook for the family of a colonel in 1869 and 1870. She then travelled to Pueblo, Colorado and worked as a laundress for a Mr. Dunbar for two years. She moved on and lived in Las Animas County, Colorado for a year, again working as a laundress. She finally settled permanently in Trinidad, Colorado, making her living as a laundress. There is some evidence she may also have found work as a nurse.
Why did Cathay Williams return to the identity of a woman working in low-paying servitude? We can only guess at her reasons. She may have been tired of living as a man. Maybe concealing the fact she was a woman became too much of a burden. Perhaps she had no choice. Her bad health likely made her incapable of the generally physically demanding manual labor available to uneducated black men working for wages. She may have viewed the somewhat less physically demanding "woman's works her only alternative in making a living.
At some point in late 1889 or early 1890, Cathay Williams was hospitalized in Trinidad for nearly a year and a half. Again, no record has surfaced detailing the nature of this illness. She was probably indigent when she left the hospital, so she filed in June 1891 for an invalid pension based upon her military service. Her application brought to light the fact that an African-American woman served in the Regular Army.
Her original application for the pension, sworn before the local County Clerk (as was the procedure for all pension applications), gave her age as 41. She stated that she was one and the same with the William Cathey who served as a private in Company A, 38th U.S. Infantry for just under two full years. She claimed in her application that she was suffering deafness, contracted in the army. She also referred to her rheumatism and neuralgia. She declared eligibility for an invalid pension because she could no longer sustain herself by manual labor. We can infer she was unemployed at the time of the application.
The clerk recorded her attorneys as Charles and William King of Washington, D.C. These two men most likely were professional pension claim handlers. There is no evidence that they over-exerted themselves on behalf of their client in Colorado.
A supplemental declaration, filed the following month in Trinidad by Cathay Williams before the County Clerk, contended that she contracted small pox at St. Louis in October 1868, and that she was still recovering from the disease when she swam the Rio Grande River on the way to New Mexico. She stated that the combined effects of small pox and exposure led to her deafness.
There are obvious problems with the two declarations. Nowhere do the available records extant today indicate that she ever complained of, or exhibited signs of deafness while in the army. The Pension Bureau, a forerunner of today's Department of Veterans Affairs, claimed such documentation could not be found in 1891. If Cathay Williams suffered hearing impairment during her tour of duty, no one bothered to record the fact. Given the minimal information written down about Regular Army privates during the 19th century by their commanding officers and their doctors, this is a possibility. Since Williams was illiterate, she would not have known what they wrote about her anyway.
Her claim of suffering small- pox in October 1868 is even more puzzling. She was in New Mexico that month, and discharged on the 14th. She could not have been in St. Louis. Did the County Clerk record the wrong month and year? Was Cathay Williams suffering memory lapse 23 years after she left the army? Did she invent this illness? The attorneys for Cathay Williams apparently never noticed the discrepancies of dates in the July 1891 declaration.
Assuming an error in recording the year of her bout with small pox does not help Williams' case. If she claimed hospitalization in October 1866, then she did not have a case for a disability pension based on that disease, as it happened before her enlistment. She could not have been hospitalized in St. Louis in October 1867, because she was in New Mexico.
William Cathey was in a St. Louis hospital in February 1867, but the reason she was there was not recorded. Her illness could have been small pox. If Cathay Williams was mentally feeble, as her captain charged, then she easily could have been confused about the month when she gave her supplemental affidavit. Swimming the Rio Grande could have occurred only during the march from Fort Harker to Fort Union, which took place in the summer of 1867. If she had small pox earlier that year, she conceivably still could have been feeling its effects.
The military medical records document that William Cathey suffered rheumatism and neuralgia while in the service. The pension case of Cathay Williams would have been stronger if she had claimed disability based on those two problems. Why didn't she? One wonders if her lawyers gave her any advice at all.
On September 9, 1891 a medical doctor in Trinidad, employed by the Pension Bureau, examined Cathay Williams. (His name is lost to posterity because his signature on all the paper work is illegible.) He was charged with providing both a thorough examination of the patient, and a complete description to the Pension Bureau of her physical condition at the time of the exam. The doctor described Cathay Williams that day as 5'7, 160 pounds, large, stout, and 49 years of age. He reported that she could hear a conversation, and therefore was not deaf. He also reported no physical changes in her joints, muscles, or tendons indicating rheumatism or neuralgia. This doctor obviously did not know that neuralgia was a problem of the nerves, not the muscles, thus raising questions of his competency.
Most horrifying, the doctor reported that all her toes on both feet had been amputated, and she could only walk with the aid of a crutch. He provided no explanation of, or ruminations concerning the cause of amputation. He may not have even asked her how, why, or when it happened. Other than her loss of toes, the doctor stated she was in good general health. While he declared the impairment caused by the amputations permanent, he gave his opinion as "nil" on a disability rating.
In addition to ordering the physical examination of Cathay Williams, the clerks at the Pension Bureau in charge of her case solicited information from her private doctors in Trinidad. Those men could not, or did not, provide the bureau with any information. So it is not known if she lost her toes during the Trinidad hospitalization, or why the procedure was necessary. While it is apparent the amputations happened after her military service, those severed toes are still another unexplained incident in the life of Cathay Williams.
In February 1892, the Pension Bureau rejected her claim for an invalid pension. Her lawyers were notified in April. In September, they rallied to their client's defense. While they conceded there was no proof she acquired deafness in the line of duty, they tried to follow up on the disability of the feet, and claimed she lost her toes due to 'frosted feet'. Frostbite would have qualified her for an invalid pension, if she was afflicted during her service. Her medical records do not document any such complaint. While it does get cold in Kansas and New Mexico, where she served, it also gets very cold in Colorado, where she later lived.
There is no indication of whether the case went any further, or if Williams' attorneys received any response from the Pension Bureau regarding their new claim. In any event, Cathay Williams did not receive a government disability pension based upon her military service.
The Pension Bureau rejected her claim on medical grounds, that no disability existed. Under the existing regulations, there were five lawful grounds for denial of an invalid pension. The first reason, desertion, is not valid. The second that disability existed prior to enlistment could have been cited by the bureau, based on the surgeon's statement on her discharge certificate that the feeble condition pre-dated enlistment. The third reason that disability was not due to service -- also could have been cited by the bureau, as they could find no documentation of deafness, small pox, and presumably, frostbite during her tenure in the army. Remember, she did not claim disability due to neuralgia or rheumatism. A fourth cause of denying a pension was that the service was not legal. The Pension Bureau could have attempted that excuse immediately, because the former soldier in question was a woman who had passed herself for a man in order to join the army. Enlistment of women in the military was illegal.
Instead, the Pension Bureau used the fifth reason -- that no disability existed. This is questionable. Perhaps the Trinidad doctor's report, which basically stated she was fine, held the most weight in the case. But Cathay Williams was disabled. She could only walk with the permanent aid of a crutch. And, for different reasons, the army itself had deemed her disabled for service in 1868. The pension clerks offered no explanation for picking the "no disability" grounds for denial of the pension. The review personnel of the Pension Bureau rubber-stamped the decision, and did not raise any questions about the case.
There was wide room for Cathay Williams' pension case to be disputed as the initial lack of effort and the delayed activism on the part of her lawyers certainly would be grounds for legal malpractice. The pension clerks had some other compelling reasons to doubt the circumstances of the case. The inadequate documentation of William Cathey's illnesses while in the army raised the question of the government's culpability. The conflicting statements of the application and supplemental affidavit for the pension raised the issue of Cathay Williams' credibility. The September 1891 medical report by the doctor in Trinidad denied any disability. The damning sentences on her discharge papers stated that the feeble condition pre-dated enlistment.
The fact that the Pension Bureau chose the least defensible reason for denial, that Cathay Williams was not disabled, raises the question of how fairly and how thoroughly her case was treated. She was disabled. True, she was not an invalid in the strictest sense of the word, but as a laundress by occupation, she was severely impaired by not being able to walk and stand without aid.
Was racism or sexism at work during the pension application and review process? Did those elements play a crucial role in the denial of a pension for Cathay Williams? One can argue that racism and sexism were pervasive social attitudes in the 1890's, and the Pension Bureau did not operate in a social vacuum. It should be noted, however, that nowhere in her pension application file are any written statements that can be perceived, even marginally, as racist or sexist, and there are no derogatory remarks written about the applicant herself.
Surprisingly, the Pension Bureau never questioned identity, and never appeared to doubt that William Cathey of the 38th Infantry and Cathay Williams of Trinidad, Colorado were one in the same. This is rather incredible. Granted, Cathay Williams was not the first woman to apply for a pension based upon milltary service. By 1891, the Pension Bureau had dealt with more than one woman who disguised herself as a man and served her country during the Civil War. Women who applied for pensions based upon army service usually met with resistance, not just from the pension clerks, but from the army itself.
Why was Cathay Williams' service not questioned by the pension investigators? Was it because she produced the original discharge papers of William Cathey on demand? Was it because the alias was disingenuous, a simple switch of her first and last names, and therefore credible? Was it because her skill as a soldier was never tested on the battlefield? Or was it because she was black? The pension clerks might have found it less troubling to believe a black woman could pass as a man and do soldier duty, and more difficult to accept that white women did the same during the Civil War.
Maybe a small and brief notation in Cathay Williams' pension file fully sums it up. A clerk wrote in the margins that the question of identity was never raised, as the claim was rejected for medical reasons. This one sentence leaves open the probability that her service may have been questioned had there been no recourse to deny her claim on strictly medical grounds.
It is unfortunate that so little is known of Cathay Williams. The information in her pension file together with the scattered references to her in military records is all that exists. The fragmentary references to her physical condition, however, provide some clues as to what may have caused of her various ailments during the course of her adult life. It is entirely possible that Cathay Williams suffered from mild diabetes, the form that is non-insulin-dependent and not immediately life-threatening.
Untreated, mild diabetes increases the individual's susceptibility to viruses. Cathay Williams may have contracted small pox. And another virus later in life may have caused her to be hard of hearing. If she easily caught whatever bugs were going around the camp or the fort, this would explain why the Fort Bayard surgeon labeled her of feeble habit. Untreated non-insulin-dependent diabetes can also affect the peripheral nerves, causing pain. We know that Cathay 'Williams suffered unexplained pain in the nerves, or neuralgia. Another symptom is loss of deep tendon reflexes and general muscle weakness and soreness. This could be what she and the Fort Cummings doctors diagnosed as rheumatism. The doctor in Trinidad would not have noticed any physical changes in her muscles or tendons if her pain was caused by diabetes. If Cathay Williams was a diabetic, then the Fort Bayard surgeon was right -- her illness did pre-date enlistment.
Mild diabetes, especially in younger patients, can be controlled with diet and exercise. We can assume that Cathay Williams did not know the cause of her medical problems any omore than the variety of doctors who treated her. We can also assume that she did not have the proper diet for a diabetic. But it is interesting to note that she was healthiest when Company A was on the move, marching frequently to different posts between June 1867 and January 1868. She was getting daily exercise, which was good for a diabetic condition.
A major, and one of the final, complications of untreated diabetes is gangrene. Gangrene of the toes would explain the amputations. If the theory that Williams was diabetic is correct, then she did not have long to live after her toes were amputated.
Nothing definite is known of Cathay Williams after the Pension Bureau rejected her claim. Where she lived, how she survived, her quality of life, and the date and place of her death are undetermined. She was born in anonymity, and so she died.
The 1900 federal census schedule for Trinidad, Colorado does not list Cathay Williams, nor cite any black woman with a similar name. From this we can deduce that she either left Trinidad sometime after 1892, or she died prior to the arrival of the census-takers. (Unfortunately, the state-wide census for Colorado is not indexed.) Given her handicap, and the assump tion she was in financial straits when she applied for the pension, it seems unlikely she relocated. It is more probable that she died sometime between late 1892 and 1900. This is especially likely if the diabetes theory is correct, as the amputations illustrate she was in the final stages of the disease.
All theorizing aside, the central and most significant fact of the life of Cathay WiIliams is that this African-American woman set a precedent. She did it without fanfare, and in all probability, without intention. After all, she did not enter the army to prove a point, nor did she reveal the fact she was a woman from any social or political motivations. She probably entered the army to make a living, and when she filed for a pension she very likely was destitute.
Cathay Williams is an improbable pioneer, which makes her life even more significant. Her army service was not brilliant. It was short-lived, but then, she was mustered out of the army essentially through no fault of her own -- she was unhealthy. Further, she was uneducated, possibly suffering a long-term debilitating disease, in lowly circumstance, and perhaps unintelligent. What little is known about her life suggests it was difficult. The importance of Cathay Williams does not lie just in the recognition that she is the only documented black woman who served in the Regular Army infantry during the 19th century. She set a precedent against the odds.
Historically, she prevailed, despite whatever illness, hardship, discrimination, and anonymity she faced during the course of her life. She carved a small, but symbolically important place in the history of American women, in the history of African-Americans, and in the history of the United States Army.