Profiles of Bravery

Cathay Williams

First African American female to enlist in the Army

Cathay Williams

On Nov. 15, 1866, Cathay Williams enlisted in the Army using the name William Cathay. She informed her recruiting officer that she was a 22-year-old cook. He described her as 5' 9", with black eyes, black hair and black complexion. An Army surgeon examined Cathay and determined the recruit was fit for duty, thus sealing her fate in history as the first documented black woman to enlist in the Army even though U.S. Army regulations forbade the enlistment of women. She was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry and traveled throughout the West with her unit. During her service, she was hospitalized at least five times, but no one discovered she was a female. After less than two years of service, Cathay was given a disability discharge but little is known of the exact medical reasons.

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