Cathay Williams

A hero of the Civil War, Cathay Williams is the first documented African American woman who served as a soldier in the U.S. Army. 

Cathay Williams was born in Independence Missouri to an enslaved mother and a free father in September 1844. During her adolescence, she worked as a house slave. Union forces occupied Jefferson City during the early stages of the Civil War. Captured slaves were designated as contraband and were forced to serve in military support roles. Before her voluntary enlistment, at 17 years old, Williams served as an Army cook and washerwoman. Despite the prohibition against women serving in the military, Williams enlisted in the U.S. Army under the male alias "William Cathay" in November 1866.

Cathay said she joined the Army because she wanted to make her own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.

Williams served under the service of General Philip Sheridan and witnessed the Red River Campaign at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Shortly after her enlistment, Williams contracted smallpox and was hospitalized. Possibly due to the effects of smallpox, heat and years of marching, her body showed signs of strain. She was honorably discharged by her commanding officer, Captain Charles E. Clarke on October 14, 1968.

Williams is also the only known female Buffalo Soldier. Williams' determination to serve her country demonstrates the extraordinary feats women have accomplished simply trying to live their lives.

(September 1844-1893)