William Cathay walked out of the Army Surgeon’s office in St. Louis, Missouri, sniffed the crisp fall air, and flashed a smile—relieved the secret this 22-year old recruit harbored remained safe. 


Cathay enlisted in the reorganized peacetime regular army on November 15, 1866, for a three-year tour of duty as a cook with the 38th U.S. Infantry, a segregated unit assigned to travel in the West.

Until being discharged on October 14, 1868, no one ever knew William Cathay (Cathey) played the role of an impostor.

Cathay’s real name was Cathay Williams, the first documented black woman to enlist in the Army, a time when Army regulations prohibited women from doing so.

Few specifics exist about why she masqueraded as a man.

Military service may have appealed to her as a way of making a living and, perhaps, earning respect. After the Civil War, most black Americans faced limited employment opportunities, especially the women

“I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent of relations or friends,” Williams once said in a newspaper interview.

It’s believed Williams is the first woman to have served in the United States Regular Army in the 19th century. During the Revolution and the Civil War, some women disguised themselves as men to serve in volunteer army units.

Personnel records, although sketchy, described William Cathay as an average soldier who neither distinguished nor disgraced himself in the performance of his duties. 

No details are available about how she managed to succeed in hiding her identity. She did, however, once admit her masquerade wasn’t a total secret.

“The regiment I joined wore the Zouave uniform and only two persons, a cousin and a particular friend, members of the regiment, knew that I was a woman. They never ‘blowed’ on me…” 

During her two-year army career, physicians hospitalized Cathay for various ailments. For that reason, it’s astonishing no one discovered William Cathay was a woman. 

Cathay apparently never underwent a thorough physical examination, which raises a question about the standard of medical care for soldiers, or for black American soldiers.

It is possible William Cathay refused to undress fully or may have turned down any potentially invasive procedures while being treated. Nevertheless, her frequent visits for medical care ultimately ended her brief military career.

The army surgeon at Fort Bayard, New Mexico discharged Cathay and two other privates, issuing them certificates of disability.

One of her commanders wrote that Cathay had been “…feeble both physically and mentally, and much of the time quite unfit for duty. The origin of his infirmities is unknown to me.”

After being discharged, Cathay traveled to Fort Union, New Mexico, and worked as a cook for an officer’s family.

In 1870, she found her way to Pueblo, Colorado, and worked as a laundress and later settled in Trinidad, Colorado, doing the same job.

In June 1891, she decided to file for an invalid pension based on her military service. The 41-year-old woman admitted she was the William Cathay who served as a private in Company A, 38th Infantry.

According to her application, she suffered from deafness, rheumatism, and neuralgia. Despite a strong case, but a questionable legal follow-up, the Pension Bureau rejected her claim in February 1892.

At that point, the trail grew cold. No information exists on where she lived or how and when she died. Cathay Williams vanished into the page of history.



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