At July’s end in 1866, Congress passed the Army Organization Act. It stipulated that for the first time black men could serve in the United States Army.
The act specifically created two segregated cavalry units (the 9th and 10th) and six segregated infantry regiments (the 24th, 25th, 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st).
This units were deployed to posts throughout the Southwest during the Indian Wars. The soldiers ferocity in battle and their dark, curly hair led the Comanche, Cheyenne and Apache warriors to refer to them as Buffalo Soldiers.
The term was soon applied to all black soldiers.
She was 17 years old in 1861 when the Civil War began and the Union Army’s 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel William P. Benton, came to Jefferson City, Missouri.
Since Williams was a slave, she was pressed into service as a cook and traveled with Benton’s regiment through Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia. When the war ended, she was working at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.
In 1865, employment opportunities were scarce for many emancipated slaves. With the passage of the aforementioned Army Organization Act, numerous freed male slaves looked to serve in the Army as it provided steady pay, some education, basic health care, and a pension.
Williams had a cousin and a friend, both males, who had enlisted; on November 15, 1866 she enlisted too.
“They were partly the cause of my joining the Army,” she recounted in a St. Louis Daily Times January 2, 1876 article, “and I wanted to make my own living.”
Women were prohibited from joining the military at that time, but Cathay Williams disguised herself by becoming William Cathay.
By enlisting she became the first black woman to enlist and serve in the Army in the 19th century.
Used to Army life – and after a cursory physical examination – Private Cathay was assigned to Company A, 38th Infantry Regiment.
Since the regiment was segregated, her assignment made her the only female Buffalo Soldier.
Throughout 1867 the regiment tramped across plains, forded rivers, ventured into Indian Territory, plodded through desert sands, and climbed over mountains throughout the Southwest.
“I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the army,” she told the St. Louis Daily Times.
Problematic health issues plagued Williams; she was hospitalized several times with smallpox, rheumatism and neuralgia. At some point, doctors amputated her toes, a possible result of diabetes.
Throughout it all, her secret identity remained undetected.
This changed in early October 1868, when during another hospital stay a doctor uncovered William’s secret. He issued a certificate of disability stating that she was “unable to do military duty.”
On October 14th Williams was honorably discharged.
Life After the Army
Upon discharge, she worked for a short time at Fort Union, New Mexico before moving to Pueblo, Colorado. At both places she washed clothes and cooked meals.
After a marriage and divorce, Williams relocated to Trinidad, Colorado and worked as a seamstress.
It is there in 1875 that a reporter for the St. Louis Daily Times interviewed Williams and wrote about her life as a soldier.
In 1890 Williams entered the local hospital. After a lengthy stay, she applied for a disability pension.
In September of that year, a physician examined Williams and found that although she suffered from neuralgia, diabetes and the loss of her toes, she did not qualify for disability payments.
In 1892 the Pension Bureau agreed with the doctor’s assessment.
Requiem for a Buffalo Soldier
Williams faced failing health and financial difficulties for the rest of her life. It is believed she passed away sometime between 1893 and 1900. Her final resting spot is unknown.
Private Cathay Williams honorably served her country, and she made a positive impact on American history. Her name will forever be remembered as the only female Buffalo Soldier.
Read more on notable women who served in the Armed Forces.