Do you think Bob Marley ever imagined his popular Buffalo Soldiers song paid tribute to Cathay Williams, a woman serving in the real Buffalo Soldiers regiment in 1866?
I’m guessing he was probably more preoccupied with his reggae music, ganja and feeling alright than a Black woman disguised as a man.
When Buffalo Soldier song was released posthumously in 1983 on the Confrontation album, it became one of his biggest hits. It’s recognized as a protest song about America’s use of slaves to rid the West of Native Indians. Marley’s lyrics call out the injustices perpetrated why White Americans who wanted to lay claim to lands that weren’t theirs and over 150 million people listened on YouTube.
Cathay Williams was a Black woman who also tried to right the wrongs in her life.
She served in the Buffalo regiment during the Civil War, having enlisted two years earlier. Her biggest wish was to live free from the restrictions placed on women, especially slave women. WomanScape shared the first part of her story in Hiding Her Gender To Be Treated Equally and today’s article continues as Cathay brings her extraordinary courage and conviction to Fort Cummings, New Mexico in 1866.
In many ways, Cathay’s plight was not unlike that of the Buffalo Soldiers who laid the foundation for a grassroots civil rights movement. They were given horrible assignments and suffered extreme hardships but persevered. They did backbreaking menial work like building roads and forts under difficult circumstances. As protectors of huge tracts of land in Apache territory, the Native Indians dubbed the Black Soldiers Buffalo Soldiers because their coarse curly hair resembled the buffalo as their indomitable will power. In time, the Buffalo Soldiers played a key role in winning the Indian Wars.
The heavy work took a toll on soldiers like Cathay who were forced to work without a sufficient number of horses or the proper type of equipment for building and fending off threats.
Unlike White regiments, the Buffalo Soldiers also suffered unjust prejudice at the hands of other White people who worked in nearby towns. They suffered beatings and extreme punishments for the Union cause and the hope of eventually winning their freedom.
But just 8 months after Cathay arrived in New Mexico, she fell sick and had to be hospitalized. She had contracted smallpox when she enlisted and was still recovering. Like most prevalent diseases, it weakened her immune system and her health slipped further from the hot climate and the heavy labor.
When Cathay’s surgeons discovered she was a woman, her career as a soldier was over. Thankfully, she recovered before she was discharged, unlike other soldiers who died from diseases unrelated to combat injuries.
These illnesses were in fact the largest single cause of death during the Civil War because medicine was still very primitive and doctors lacked training. Shockingly, for “every three soldiers killed in battle, five more died from disease.”
In late 1889 or early 1890, Cathay applied for a disability pension for her military service.
It wasn’t granted even though the doctor who dismissed her from service had provided a disability certificate. There is speculation about why this was but it may have been because she was a woman with no protections under law, or it could be that the officers serving in her regiment feared being court-martialed for having an illegal female serve in their company.
Whatever the reason, Cathay decided to stay in New Mexico after her release and managed to find work as a cook.
Integrating back into society was challenging for a woman like Cathay who had earned considerably higher living wages (making a soldier’s wage of $13 versus $4 a month as a domestic worker) and enjoyed freedoms not afforded to women of any color.
Ironically, the Civil War helped free Cathay and imbued a sense of adventure, higher pay and more independence than she had ever known.
An excerpt written by Sarah Edmonds Seele, a Canadian woman who fled to the U.S. from Nova Scotia and fought in the Civil War as a man, supports this relished opportunity that many women soldiers felt: “I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep.”
Cathay inevitably cursed her loss of freedom when she eventually married because her husband ran off with all of her savings and a team of horses. True to form, Cathay chased after him. The newsworthy story captured the attention of a reporter from St. Louis who heard rumors of Cathay’s military service. Had it not been for the news article he wrote, Cathay’s life might have remained a secret like many of the other women who fought alongside her.
The St. Louis Daily Times interviewed Cathay who said, “I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the Army.” Cathay was so grateful for her independence that never complained about the pain she suffered from rheumatism, neuralgia (intense nerve pain) or the severance of all the toes (likely from diabetes).
No long after leaving the military, Cathay died sometime around 1892. She rests in an unmarked grave but her story lives on in the soldiering women who followed after her.
Her story is one of many fascinating stories about women like Cathay who exemplified courage and service. The New York Time and the Chicago Daily Tribune published all kinds of savory stories about other women soldiers like Jack Williams.
Jack was heralded as the ideal soldier in the Union Army and a hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing man’s man. I loved reading about Jack because, unbeknownst to his friends, this glorious soldier who learned to spit and play cards with other men fought in 18 battles and was also the mother of three children from Illinois. She had enlisted in the army to fight by her husband’s side in 1861.
“After joining up with husband Elmer, she fought alongside him until he was killed just a few feet in front of her at the battle of Stones River on December 31, 1862. As the story goes, she didn’t stop fighting, but stepped over his body and charged forward when the order to advance was given.”
Jack understood, like Cathay, that the greatest challenge for women who took to the battlefield was the fight to be treated equally. Many of these women were wiped from the history books or labeled prostitutes, crazy, or homosexual. Who could blame them – why would any woman take up a musket?
This drive and willingness to risk injury or even death is echoed time and again in history. It says more about the courage of women and the extreme measures they were willing to take just because they wanted more from life.
Tomorrow, we examine the life of Doris Allen, aka Lucki Allen. Lucki didn’t have to hide her gender in service to country but she did struggle to gain acceptance among her male peers. Of course, there are still challenges today for women wanting equal access to opportunity, but Lucki demonstrates just how far unwavering self-respect like Cathay’s can take you. This no-holes-barred, kick-ass attitude is timeless.