You’re going to see words like slave, secret identity, Buffalo Soldiers and amputated toes in today’s article.
They are riveting markers in the life of Cathay Williams, a woman who took risks despite her contraband status as a slave and a woman not allowed to fit in the American Civil War.
Cathay found camaraderie in a community of soldiers and freedom in an independent life. But, make no mistake. This woman, and all of the hundreds – possibly a thousand – women who served in the Civil War, carved a path in history for other women to believe that any obstacle in life could be won with an indomitable spirit.
Cathay Williams was born into slavery in September 1944 but her 49 years on this great earth were shaped by anything but slavery.
Phillip thomas Tucker writes in his biography From Slave to Female Buffalo Soldier about Cathay that,
“the experience of slavery was not sufficient to shatter her self of self or personal identity. Cathy was a survivor … resilient to the last, [and] she succeeded in accomplishing what most other women could only dream of achieving.”
It seems fitting that Cathay grew up in a town called Independence in Missouri. Her father was a free man but her mother was a slave. This made her a contraband slave. It’s a strange term when you consider that it means something illegal in today’s society.
But for Cathay, slavery was a choice so when faced with the opportunity to change her circumstance, she was beholden to no one.
As a young girl, Cathay worked as a house slave on the Johnson plantation until the Union forces occupied the nearby city of Jefferson. She was forced into servitude and could join the military as a cook, laundress or nurse.
At 17 years of age without any experience as a cook, Cathay joined the the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel William Plummer Benton. She saw some of the heaviest fighting in the Civil War and was present at the Battle of Pea Ridge and the Red River Campaign. When she saw uniformed African-American men serving as soldiers, it’s likely this inspired her decision to enlist as a soldier.
Cathay wanted to rely on her own intelligence, determination and the strength – to master her own fate. She didn’t expect a free pass because she was a woman. Instead, she hid her gender so she could prove her worth and earn her own living. Women had to be willing to do all that men did. Thankfully, women today can compete for jobs today with men without having to hide their gender, even if prejudices still exist around a woman’s competency.
But for Cathay in 1866, she changed her surname to her first name and became a soldier in the U.S. Army under the pseudonym William Cathay. At 22 years of age, the Northern and Southern armies were desperate for soldiers. This war would be the last American war where women could hide their gender and fight alongside men as “equals”.
This was in part because of the catastrophic number of soldiers who died in service and the desperate need for new soldiers. The magnitude of blood shed in the Civil War was unfathomable, and more Americans died in the Civil War (620,000) than those who perished in both the First (405,399) and Second (116,516) World War.
Cathay became the first African-American woman and the only documented one to serve in the U.S. Army. She enlisted for three years and passed as a man serving in the 38th Infantry Regiment. Although it’s difficult to imagine what it was like for any soldier, it’s impossible to think about the lengths that Cathay must have taken to shield her gender and the toll that daily battles and horrible blookshed must have taken on her.
Union soldiers in the trenches before battle
In reality, it wasn’t difficult to pass the medical exam. Doctors wanted to be sure new recruits were healthy enough to fight. Because they slept in uniforms that were loose fitting, and bathed and relieved themselves in private, it was easy to disguise a woman’s shape. When it came to facial hair, a clean face was a youthful man. Some historical accounts even suggest that it was an open secret that women were knowingly admitted into the army despite their gender.
Nearly two years after enlisting, Williams and her regiment arrived at Fort Cummings in southern New Mexico. It was the heart of Apache territory and Cathay’s body was starting to show serious signs of stress.
She had contracted smallpox shortly after enlisting, but had returned to work after recovering from her hospitalization. When her company arrived at Fort Cummings, she served with a company of men who were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
In this company of African Americans, Cathay felt engaged and connected. Her cousin and one friend knew about her secret identity as a man because they served in the same regiment.
Union soldier pictured standing on a plantation
The Buffalo Soldiers were a special unit that earned their nickname from Native Indians who saw them as ferocious fighters. Some historical accounts also suggest these soldiers fought with such an intensity that their curly hair reminded the Indians of the all powerful buffalo.
In joining this regiment, Cathay was privy to extreme hardships that were greater than most companies. Check back tomorrow for more on Cathay Williams and how her life was about to change.