Cathy Williams Female Soldier Cowgirl Magazine
Cathy Williams.

A cold sunrise greeted the soldiers stationed at Fort Cummings, New Mexico, on the first day of 1868. An eager bugler sounded a call to arms, and members of the Thirty-eighth Infantry hurried out of their barracks to line up in formation, their rifles perched over their shoulders. The enlisted African-American men who made up the regiment pulled their army-issued jackets tightly around their necks in an effort to protect themselves from a bitter winter wind. Among the troops falling into place was Private William Cathay. Cathay proudly stood at attention, willing and ready to do battle with the Apaches who were raiding villages and wagon trains heading west. The determined expression the private wore was not unlike the look the other members of the outfit possessed.

The Thirty-eighth Infantry was just one of many black units known as the Buffalo Soldiers, a dedicated division of the US Army that seemed to consistently wear a determined expression. Cathay was not unique in that manner. By all appearances Private Cathay was like the other 134 men who made up Company A. What set this soldier apart from the others, however, was her gender. Cathay was a woman disguised as a man—anxious to follow orders to overtake the Chiricahua Apache warriors.

Cathay stomped her feet to warm them and allowed her eyes to scan the faces of the troops on either side. She’d been with this regiment for more than a year, and no one had learned her secret. No one knew the extremes to which she was willing to go to defend the country that had saved her from a life of slavery. Fort Cummings’ commander, James N. Morgan, and his entourage approached the soldiers from the headquarters office and looked over the armed men assembled on the parade field. “The Apaches are less mobile in the dead of winter,” Lieutenant Morgan announced. “In fact, this is the only time of year they are even remotely vulnerable.” Private Cathay and the other soldiers hung on every word their commanding officer said. They knew this would be a dangerous mission. Many of the Buffalo Soldiers would die trying to overtake the Indians.

“The Apaches won’t be expecting us to attack,” Morgan added. “Using three columns, we will come at them from more than one direction and trap them.” The bugle sounded again, and Private Cathay adjusted the cartridge box and gear strapped to the pack on her back. The march deep into the Apache homeland would be long and arduous. Cathay and the other Buffalo Soldiers were up to the task. She was determined to prove that she was a good soldier and worthy of the uniform she wore. As she marched out of the post with the troops toward the snowcapped mountains where the Natives had last been seen, she marched into history. Private Cathay would be the first and only African-American woman to engage in active operations against the Apache.

William Cathay was born Cathy Williams in 1842 in Independence, Missouri. Her father was a free man and her mother, Martha, was a slave on a plantation owned by a wealthy farmer by the name of William Johnson. At the age of six, Cathy began working as a house servant, performing menial tasks and assisting the Johnsons with their every need.

In 1850, the Johnsons relocated to Jefferson City, Missouri, taking with them all their possessions, including the house servants. Cathy’s mother was a field hand and would be left behind. She would never see her mother again.

Cathy’s position as a house servant was considered “privileged” by most slaves, but she made no distinction between those who toiled in manual labor and those who worked in the “big house.” Historical records indicate that she resented her owners as much as the slaves who worked the land did. Cathy knew that in the eyes of the law she was nothing more than mere chattel owned by another human being. Like all slaves, she longed to be free. Freedom meant an opportunity to be educated, something for which Cathy ached. House servants working alongside the young woman taught her to read, but she never learned to write.

At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate gunners in Charleston Harbor fired on Fort Sumter. The Civil War had begun, and Cathy Williams’ life changed forever. William Johnson passed away shortly after the first exchange of gunfire between soldiers from the North and South. Within a few months, Union troops had taken over the Jefferson City area and seized the plantation owner’s property, including his slaves.

“United States soldiers took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock,” Cathy later recalled in an interview with the St. Louis Daily Times. “Colonel Benton of the 13th army corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go.”

Cathy became a free woman in the summer of 1861. It was a dream come true, but it was not without complications. She was at a loss as to what to do or where to go—she’d never known any life than that of house servant. In her former master’s care, she’d had a place to sleep and food to eat. The question of how to provide for such basic necessities on her own made her freedom bittersweet. As an uneducated former slave, her job options were limited. She reluctantly accepted a paid position with the Thirteenth Army Corps as a cook. It was a job she was not eager to accept because she knew nothing about cooking. The corps commander soon realized that her culinary skills were lacking, and after a few months she was let go. She then took a job as laundress for the officers of the Eighth Indiana. She followed the unit on various campaigns throughout the South and was witness to the mass liberation of fellow slaves.

Cathy settled with the Eighth’s encampment near St. Louis, Missouri. Many of the troops were suffering with dysentery and needed time away from battle to rest and recover. Although many Hoosier farm boys died from the disease, Cathy was spared even the slightest illness. She stayed with the regiment with her two twenty-five-gallon wooden tubs, soap, scrub boards and buckets, starch, laundry sticks, and other necessities.

Once the Eighth Infantry was on the mend, the company was dispatched to Pea Ridge in Arkansas. There the soldiers engaged in a skirmish that ended any Southern hopes of taking Missouri back from the Union army. Cathy’s duties shifted from laundress to nurse and medical assistant. She bandaged soldiers’ wounds and washed down operating tables. Five members of the Eighth were killed, their bodies torn apart in a hail of cannon and gunfire.

Cathy was deeply affected by the ravages of war. The horrors to which she was exposed included more than the deaths of young men; she also witnessed the destruction of hundreds of acres of crops and the obliteration of homes and bridges: “I saw soldiers burn lots of cotton and was at Shreveport when the rebel gunboats were captured and burned on Red River,” she remembered.

One hot August afternoon, as Cathy was washing bundles of clothes, she noticed a pair of black soldiers walking toward the camp. They were wearing Union blue uniforms, tan gauntlets, and canvas hats with wide brims. Not far behind the pair marched hundreds of identically dressed black troops. The sight of the Army of the Southwest, or the Buffalo Soldiers as they would later be known, left a lasting impression upon the young woman. It sparked a desire within her to one day put on a blue uniform herself. Fighting for the Union was viewed by blacks as a holy crusade. Cathy wanted a chance to fight for the liberation of all African Americans.

As a civilian employee of the Union army, Cathy served wherever she was needed. Her work fluctuated from cook to laundress and back to cook several times. At one point she was ordered from the regiment and dispatched to Little Rock to learn how to be a mess chef. Once her training was completed, she returned to the Eighth Indiana, moving with the troops through Arkansas and Louisiana, and then up to the Atlantic Coast to the nation’s capital. There the Eighth Indiana became part of the Fourth Brigade, a unit that would soon be under the command of General Phil Sheridan. Cathy was assigned to serve Sheridan and his troops. From the general’s headquarters, she was exposed to many hazards and bloody battles along the Blue Ridge Mountains: “At the time General Sheridan was making his raids in the Shenandoah Valley I was cook and washwoman for his staff.”

On the morning of October 19, 1864, Cathy found her life in danger when fifteen thousand Confederates advanced on Sheridan’s army. It was 5:00 a.m., and most of the thirty thousand troops were sleeping. The camp was awakened to the sound of gunfire and Rebel yells. Because the headquarters was a prime target, Cathy was caught in the turmoil of the assault. She hurried away from the scene along with a flood of other retreating Yankees. Not only did she want to escape death, but she needed to escape capture as well. If the Rebels caught her, they would surely force her back into a life of slavery. Cathy, the other camp followers, and troops made it out of the valley, vowing never to return.

The Eighth Indiana regrouped in Baltimore, Maryland, and was then dispatched to a fort in Georgia. Cathy remained with the company until the unit was mustered out of service in August 1865. After three and a half years of bitter fighting, the Civil War was finally over for Cathy Williams. She left the Eighth Indiana with a heavy heart. She had grown to love army life and could not imagine where she would go once the unit disbanded. The soldiers in Sheridan’s unit recognized her plight, took pity on her, and purchased a ticket back home for her. “I was sent from Virginia to some place in Iowa and afterwards to Jefferson Barracks [in Missouri], where I remained for some time.”

The locomotive transporting Williams to Missouri departed a sleepy station in Iowa, belching huge plumes of smoke into the air. Cathy stared out the window next to her seat. The car was filled with Union soldiers who had turned in their uniforms and were on their way back to their wives and families. Very few veterans had allowed themselves to contemplate until now what the future held for them once the fighting had ended. Cathy pondered the same predicament.

Overhearing two men discussing the need for troops on the western frontier planted a seed of hope in her heart. She could travel west with the army. Laundresses and cooks are always in demand, she thought. That notion was quickly dispelled when she heard the men add that only military personnel would be allowed to accompany the soldiers in the field.

Once Cathy reached her home state of Missouri, she quickly found work as a cook for a white family near Jefferson Barracks. While in their employ, she learned that African Americans were being enlisted in the US Regular Army. The news brought a surge of hope for her future. Her prospects as a single black woman were disappointing. As a black male, however, she could serve her country as a professional soldier. She began making plans to disguise herself and enlist. She said, “This is for the best. . . . I want to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.”

Transforming her look was not difficult for Cathy. Since her early days with the Eighth Indiana, she had worn men’s clothing, purely out of necessity. Years of close association with soldiers helped her pattern her speaking style and mannerisms to pass as a man. She was physically fit and tall, standing over five feet, nine inches. Most women at the time were petite and frail by comparison. She was certain her height and stature would fool the brass.

On November 15, 1866, Cathy Williams marched into the recruiting depot at Jefferson Barracks and enlisted for three years of service in the US Army. She told the officer on duty that her name was William Cathy. Because she did not know how to write, the officer signed in for her, misspelling her new last name. Her age was listed as twenty-two and her occupation as cook. She requested an assignment with an infantry unit. She believed serving in such a regiment was essential to concealing her gender. All was well, but she still had to pass a medical examination by an army surgeon.

A hurried doctor looked the athletically built recruit up and down. He sized her up to be an excellent candidate for service and, with only a cursory examination, waved her through the process. Cathy, now a Buffalo Soldier, was filled with pride as she took the required oath:

I, William Cathay[,] desiring to enlist in the Army of the United States, for the term of three years do declare, that I am twenty-two years and two months of age; that I have neither wife nor child; that I have never been discharged from the United States service on account of disability or by sentence of a court-martial, or by order before the expiration of the term of enlistment; and I know of no impediment to my serving honestly and faithfully as a soldier for three years.

Private Cathay was ordered to Fort Cummings, New Mexico, to serve under the command of Captain Charles Clarke. The objective of the unit was to face the Apache force and bring the renegades to order. Cathy would be paid $13 a month to make the western frontier safe for pioneers and gold rushers. In addition to the uniform—which consisted of a dark blue blouse, lighter blue trousers, an oval US belt buckle, and brass “eagle” plates on the shoulder belt—she was issued a Springfield rifle.

Upon Cathy’s arrival at Fort Cummings, she was greeted by more than two hundred African-American soldiers stationed at the post. In the short time the Buffalo Soldiers had been in existence, the unit had earned a solid reputation for being reliable and resourceful. The name Buffalo Soldiers was first bestowed upon them by the Cheyenne braves who saw them. The troops’ curly hair reminded the Indians of the mane on a buffalo. During the post–Civil War period, these men were the roughest riders in the cavalry and hardest marchers of the infantry in the Old West. In the interview she gave to the St. Louis Daily Times in 1876, Cathy indicated that she was honored to be counted among them.

The hot southwestern sun felt good on Cathy’s head as she marched around the outside of the fort, her eyes on the lookout for warring Apaches. Prior to her transfer to Fort Cummings, she had contracted smallpox, and her body and face had been covered with small red blisters. The illness had passed, but the chill from her stay in the cold, damp dispensary in St. Louis lingered. The New Mexico heat warmed her bones and helped shake off the memory of the sickness.

By the time Cathy had arrived at Fort Cummings, she had become an expert at hiding her gender. During her stay in the hospital, she had gone to great lengths to keep from being thoroughly examined by doctors and nurses. While marching to her new post, she drank as little water as she could so she wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom often and run the risk of being found out. Cathy had two close friends stationed with her at the post who helped keep her true identity safe. They patrolled the outer perimeter of the post with her, assisting in guard duty and the protection of the fort.

During the winter of 1867, the entire post was on heightened alert. A Buffalo Soldier had been killed in the New Mexico Territory by Apaches only a month before Cathy arrived in the area. More trouble was expected. Members of the Thirty-eighth Infantry were ready for whatever lay ahead. On a few occasions, Apaches would sneak into the fort and steal horses; Cathy’s job, in part, was to thwart any further thefts.

One of the most dangerous duties assigned to Cathy was that of wood detail. Members of the party sent out to collect the daily wood put their lives at risk because they were forced to travel long distances across the desert in search of fuel. These wood details were vulnerable not only because they went well beyond the safe confines of the fort but also because they consisted of only small parties of soldiers. By the fall of 1867, wood details were traveling as far as twenty-five miles west of the fort to cut trees along the Missouri River. Unless she was feeling poorly, Cathy was dedicated to fulfilling her responsibilities to the troops to the best of her ability: “I was bound to be a good soldier or die. . . . I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the army.”

Cathy served her country across a wide expanse of the western frontier, including forts in Kansas and Colorado and throughout New Mexico and the Southwest. Yet, her service at Fort Cummings would prove to be the most dangerous of all. In January 1868, Cathy, along with the other members of the Thirty-eighth Infantry, prepared to launch an assault on the Natives who had made their stay in New Mexico so perilous.

The time had come to deal with the Apaches’ attacks on army outposts. A raid on nearby Fort Bayard, a remote outpost at the base of the Santa Rita Mountains in New Mexico, had been the last straw for top military leaders in Santa Fe. During the surprise attack on the garrison, several Buffalo Soldiers were killed while horses, mules, and cattle were stolen.

Orders from the New Mexico Military District headquarters in Santa Fe instructed troops to destroy the Natives’ camp, along with all adult male inhabitants who refused to surrender. The plan called for several columns of infantrymen to converge on a designated site and overtake the Natives.

The infantry marched over snowcapped mountains, through frigid desert, and across the icy Rio Grande to the area where the Apaches were encamped. The regiments were not dressed for such harsh weather conditions. They did not have heavy coats, robes, trousers, or overcoats, and they were not allowed to light fires to warm themselves because commanding officers were afraid that a blaze might betray their position. Many of the soldiers were taken ill before they reached their objective.

Finally, the Buffalo Soldiers gathered around the base of the canyon where the Apache camp was reported to be and peered down into the valley. Nothing stirred. A strange quiet filled the air. The Indians had abandoned the site, and their location was unknown. Not knowing what else to do and out of concern for the lives under his command, the company lieutenant ordered the troops to return to Fort Cummings. Tensions among the Buffalo Soldiers ran high. The troops speculated that the Natives might have slipped in behind them, planning an ambush.

By the time the Buffalo Soldiers made it back to Fort Cummings, many of them were exhausted and suffered with colds and flu. Cathy suffered from severe exposure to cold and was admitted to the post hospital. Doctors suspected she had rheumatoid arthritis brought on by the harsh weather endured in the field. The extent of her illness was not fully discovered by the army physicians because Cathy always refused examinations in which her gender could be discovered. After three days in the infirmary, she forced herself to return to duty in an effort to avoid detection.

The Thirty-eighth Infantry was transferred to Fort Bayard, which had a reputation for being one of the most dangerous posts in the West. Native unrest was on the rise at Bayard, and the unit was sent as reinforcement. Cathy was weak but wholeheartedly participated in the move and subsequent scouting and reconnaissance missions. Cathy’s life, as well as the lives of the other Buffalo Soldiers, was in constant jeopardy. One of the soldiers wrote, “The Indians would come down through the pine forests close to Fort Bayard and fire into the post, and the sentinels at the haystacks were often found killed with arrows. It was unsafe to leave the post without an escort.”

Cathy’s health continued to decline; within a few weeks of returning to duty, she was hospitalized again. This time she was diagnosed with neuralgia. Round-the-clock attention, a proper diet, and good drinking water helped her recovery. After a month, she was on her feet again and ready to take orders from the fierce army leader she had served under in the Civil War, General Phil Sheridan. Sheridan had lost patience with the Native attacks against civilians heading west, and, in October 1868, he unleashed a merciless type of warfare on the Apaches. Sheridan would employ all the powers at his disposal to “hunt the Plains Indians down like wolves.”

Private Cathay joined the hostilities, but only for a short time. Lingering poor health kept her from doing her job to the best of her ability. She was physically drained and began to tire of army life and the endless rules and regulations. The problem of racism within the army as a whole contributed to her change in attitude as well: “I performed all the duties expected of a soldier. . . . I was never put in the guard house, no bayonet was ever put to my back. . . . Finally I got tired and wanted to get off.”

Historians speculate that Cathy was tired not only of military life, but also of living a lie. The endless masquerade, no doubt, took its toll on her emotional health. After nearly two years of service, she marched over to the hospital determined to end the charade. The post surgeon met her as she walked into the building.

“I got tired. . . . I played sick, complained of pains in my side, and rheumatism in my knees.” Cathy made no attempt to hide her gender on her final visit to the post infirmary. During a routine exam, her gender was finally revealed. The discovery would have swift and immediate repercussions.

“I got my discharge. The men all wanted to get rid of me after they found out I was a woman. Some of them acted real bad to me.”  In October 1868, Cathy Williams became a civilian again. She resumed the garb of a woman and traveled to Fort Union, New Mexico. For two years she worked as a cook for a colonel and then moved to Pueblo, Colorado, where she was employed as a laundress for a businessman and his family. There she was introduced to a local miner who asked her to be his wife.

“I got married . . . but my husband was no account. He stole my watch and chain, a hundred dollars in money and my team of horses and wagon. I had him arrested and put in jail.” After her divorce, she left Pueblo and moved to Trinadad, Colorado. She liked the town and the people and decided to make the growing settlement her home. She continued working as a laundress and periodically served as a seamstress and a nurse. Cathy hoped to obtain a land grant from the Homestead Act of 1862. She had plans to take her land near the depot after the railroad came through. “I expect to get rich,” she told the St. Louis Daily Times. Her dream was partially realized in Colfax County, New Mexico, when she relocated to the area and became a businesswoman, running a boardinghouse.

A St. Louis reporter, who had heard rumors that Cathy served with the Buffalo Soldiers, sought her out for an interview. After his article was published, Cathy Williams became the focus of local curiosity. No one suspected this quiet, hardworking African-American woman had had such an adventurous past.

After she had saved enough money, Cathy returned to Trinidad, where she purchased a farm. She grew vegetables and flowers and in so doing broke another barrier: This former slave woman owned the land she worked. Cathy’s long-standing health problems resurfaced again in late 1890, and she had to be hospitalized. Unable to make a living for herself, she filed for military disability, hoping to get some help with her expenses. An army doctor was sent to Trinidad to examine the ailing ex-soldier and judged her to be fit. “Apart from a few amputated toes,” his report read, “I do not find she is suffering from rheumatism, neuralgia or any other illness that might be [attributed] to her service.” Her disability pension was denied. Attorneys worked on her behalf, but to no avail. Her case was repeatedly denied.

Military historians speculate that Cathy Williams died sometime in the early spring of 1892. Rheumatism had crippled the former army private, who also had developed diabetes. According to historical records, complications from diabetes most likely caused her death.

No record can be found in the small town of Trinidad of the final burial place of Cathy Williams. She was more than likely buried in an unmarked grave in the Black cemetery. She was fifty when she died.