She travelled to various locations with the army in this capacity; landing in Jefferson Barracks when the American Civil War had ended. At that time there were not many options open to African Americans to earn an income; many men turned to serving in the military, now that they were allowed to do so; women, of course, were not allowed. Cathay wanted to be independent and have her own income. Her cousin and friend were planning to enlist with the army, so she decided to join them!
Posing as a man, she gave the name Williams Cathay when she enlisted in St Louis, Missouri in November 1866. She was tall, with a recorded height of 5’9”, which perhaps helped her ruse to be successful. Her cousin and friend were the only two people who knew her true identity. She served in one of the newly formed all-black units, known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Cathay passed as a male solider for some time, but was increasingly ill. She caught smallpox and had a host of other ailments which led to her spending several stays in hospital. It’s a wonder she wasn’t outed sooner! It wasn’t until October 1868, nearly two years after she had signed up, that a doctor realised that William Cathay was a woman!
He reported his findings to the army and Cathay was immediately discharged. Interestingly though, she was discharged on the grounds of disability, and even in her discharge papers she is referred to as ‘he’. Cathy recounted:
“The post surgeon found out I was a woman and 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.”
Having left the army Cathay once again found herself as a cook, this time for a Colonel in New Mexico. Subsequently she also worked as a seamstress. She married briefly, but it didn’t end well. Her husband turned out to be a thief and stole a significant amount of property from her, including some horses. Cathy wasn’t having any of it and made sure that he was arrested and thrown in jail!
Several years later a journalist heard her story and sought her out. She had been the first, and at that point still the only, black female to serve with the United States Regular Army. Her story was published in the St Louis Daily Time in January 1876.
As she aged her health continued to deteriorate. She developed diabetes, which led to her having her toes amputated and walking with a crutch. She also reported deafness and a host of other ailments, collectively labelled as ‘neuralgia’. Having served in the military she applied for a military disability pension. Other women who had surreptitiously served in the army had been successful in doing so (Deborah Sampson & Margaret Corbin, amongst others.) However, the key thing seems to have been that those other women were white. Despite her obvious disabilities she was denied her claim.
Her exact date of death and location of burial is unknown now. It is thought that she passed away shortly after her application for a pension was denied. In 2016 a monument to Cathay was erected in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Find out more…
You can watch the dedication of the statue of Cathay here: