FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 9, 2012) -- The story of Cathay Williams is a remarkable one. Born a slave in Independence, Mo., she found freedom as a contraband worker for Union soldiers during the Civil War, disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Buffalo Soldiers after the war and perhaps, unbeknownst to her, secured her place in history in doing so.
To be clear, Williams was not the first woman who passed herself off as a man to participate in military service. U.S. military history can account for a few hundred who did the same, some who even saw combat.
What isn't clear is Williams' motive. What would possess a woman to join the infantry of all things and subject herself a foot soldier's drudgery? Was she prepared to fight if she had to, and did she ever consider the prospect of losing her cover and facing the consequences?
As history has it, Williams, aka William Cathey, became in 1866 the first black woman to have documented service in the U.S. Army and thus the U.S. Armed Forces. Her enlistment contract and discharge papers are housed in the National Archives. She is also the subject of a display at the U.S. Army Women's Museum.
But documents and a display don't begin to tell the story of Williams in its entirety. History says she served as a cook during the war, traveling with units as they moved from state to state. She told of her travels and experiences in an interview with the St. Louis Daily Times in 1872:
"I saw the soldiers burn lots of cotton and was at Shreveport (La.) when the rebel gunboats were captured and burned on Red River. We afterwards went to New Orleans, then by way of the Gulf to Savannah Ga., then to Macon and other places in the South.
"Finally I was sent to Washington City and at the time Gen. (Philip) Sheridan made his raids in the Shenandoah Valley I was cook and washwoman for his staff. I was sent from Virginia to some place in Iowa and afterwards to Jefferson Barracks (Mo.) where I remained some time."
Williams essentially spent six years in close contact with Soldiers and assuredly became acquainted with military life and its hardships. Additionally, she had no immediate family and the prospect of returning to plantation life probably didn't hold much promise. Considering her options, military service was risky but viable.
"So maybe for her, having nothing to lose, taking a chance in disguising herself maybe for the possibility of some adventure, the possibility of being able to support herself is probably what drove her," said Francois Bonnell, AWM director, noting the scant postwar opportunities available to blacks.
Proving she was an enterprising woman later in life, Williams might be called the equivalent of today's "independent woman." The act of enlisting proved she was determined to create opportunities for herself. On Sept. 15, Cathay Williams became 22-year-old William Cathey, passed a general examination and signed up for a three-year tour at St. Louis.
How did Williams get through the enlistment process? If several hundred other women were successful at it, it probably wasn't that difficult, reasoned Tracy Bradford, AWM education specialist.
"At that time, doctors were contracted with the Army," she said. "They didn't have the rigorous physical exam that Soldiers go through today."
The everyday routines of military life were much more of an obstacle. Life out on the range was unforgiving. As a member of the 38th U.S. Infantry Buffalo Soldiers, she would have lived in tents and been exposed to all types of weather, marched great distances, ate meager rations and used substandard equipment.
"Life out on the plains for these Soldiers was often very lonely and dreary," said Bonnell.
What life was like for William Cathey personally is unknown. There are no documents or newspaper accounts that detail how she felt about her experiences or how she coped. Some level of effort must have been necessary to maintain her secret.
"Having lived around Soldiers, she probably knew what language to use or maybe learned how to smoke a cigar and even learned how to hold her liquor - all those of things that automatically make people fit in," said Bonnell.
That might be an over-simplification, countered Bradford.
"Women are naturally inclined to do things a certain way," she said, noting Williams had to be cognizant of her every move and how it could possibly be perceived. Bradford referred to the published accounts of masqueraders and how something as slight as crossing ones legs or wringing a wet rag versus squeezing it could raise suspicions.
"She probably would've hidden things that are giveaways to how women do things versus how men do them," agreed Bonnell.
Needless to say, Williams must have gone to great lengths to cover her gender. One could only speculate what occurred during rest breaks and personal hygiene time or when she needed medical care.
In fact, her record indicates that she was hospitalized on several occasions. During one hospital stay in 1867, she was ill for three months and her pay was docked accordingly. She was last admitted to the hospital in July of 1868. It was during that time that she was found to be a woman.
"There is the question that when she went to see the doctors, did they find out or did she let them find out," said Bonnell. "We don't really know. She may have wanted them to find out, perhaps because that was the only way to end it all. She couldn't desert. That would have gotten her killed."
Williams discharge papers stated that she was "feeble" and couldn't stand up to the demands of the job. There is no record of her serving in combat, and she parted ways with the Army Oct. 14, 1868, at Fort Bayard, N.M. Bonnell said she doesn't think the consequences of being found out hindered Williams' service.
"I don't think she was afraid of being found out," she said. "It's my guess that she was probably calculating. If you look at the end of her life and what became of her, and everything she had endured, she had to be a pretty smart woman."
Williams returned to life as a woman after her discharge. She worked in New Mexico for some time, moved to Trinidad, Colo., where she made a living as a laundress and merchant. Williams was not in good health. She was physically broken after years of hiking hundreds of miles through the rugged western terrain. In 1891, at the age of about 41, she made a claim of disability with the Pension Bureau. It included deafness and neuralgia but was denied in February 1892 due to a lack of substantiation.
Not much is known about Williams after her claim. A census taken in Trinidad at the turn of the century didn't include her. No gravestone marks her resting place, but history has a place for this woman who risked much to carve out a better life for herself.
"I think she's inspirational," said Bradford. "Anyone who can want for something and fight to get there, who can go against convention, is an inspiration."