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Cathay Williams (1842 –1892? ) was the first and only known female Buffalo Soldier. Listed under Profiles in Courage on the official US Army website. Cathay Williams was the first documented African-American female to enlist in the U.S. Army. When Cathay Williams enlisted in the Army, women were not allowed to enlist nor serve as soldiers. So, Williams posed as a man and joined Thirty-Eighth Infantry. As a result, she became the first and the only known female Buffalo Soldier.
In an interview published by the St Louis Daily Times on January 2, 1876, Private Williams gives this firsthand account, "My Father a was a freeman, but my mother a slave, belonging to William Johnson, a wealthy farmer who lived at the time I was born near Independence, Jackson county, Missouri.”
Johnson died in Jefferson City and when the Civil war began the US soldiers under the command of Colonel Benton of the 13th Army Corps, took Cathay and other "colored" persons with them to Little Rock. According to Cathay, she did not want to go, but the colonel wanted her to cook for the officers and having been a "house girl", she did not know how to cook.
By the time of the Battle of Pea Ridge, Cathay had learned to cook and she and the Army moved into various parts of Arkansas and Louisiana and later into Shreveport when rebel gunboats were captured and burned on the Red River. Later the command moved on to Savannah, New Orleans, Macon and other southern cities. When General Sheridan made his raids in the Shenandoah Valley, Cathay was the cook and laundress for his staff. Eventually she landed at Jefferson Barracks where she stayed for some time.
Upon enlistment, the recruiting officer noted Pvt Cathay was a 22 year old cook, 5' 9" with black hair, black eyes and black complexion. An Army surgeon examined her (obviously the physical examinations at that time were cursory at best) and determined her fit for duty thus sealing her fate in history at a time when Army regulations forbade the enlistment of women.
In 1868, after two years of active duty service in the Army and five hospitalizations where her femininity was not discovered until the final one, Pvt Cathay returned to life as a woman. She settled in Pueblo, Colorado where she made a living by cooking and taking in laundry. She was married there, but her husband stole her watch and chain, one hundred dollars and her team of horses and wagon. She had him arrested and jailed.
Around 1890, living in Trinidad, Colorado and known as "Kate", Cathay was hospitalized for over a year. She filed for an invalid pension with the Army in June 1891 claiming medical disability incurred during military service as William Cathay. She was examined on September 9, 1891 by a medical doctor employed by the Pension Bureau. His examination notes described Cathay as 5'7, 160 pounds, large, stout, and 49 years of age. The doctor reported that all her toes on both feet had been amputated, and she could only walk with the aid of a crutch and his report further stated she was in good general health. While he declared the impairment caused by the amputations permanent, he gave his opinion as "nil" on a disability rating.
Nothing definite is known of Cathay Williams after the rejection of her pension claim. She was not listed in the 1900 federal census for Trinidad, Colorado nor is any black woman with a similar name listed. Either she moved prior to the census, which is unlikely given her destitution and her poor health, or she died sometime between 1892 and 1900 in Trinidad. She was born in anonymity, and she died in anonymity.
Cathay Williams set an historic precedent - for women in general and African-American women in particular. She did not have any political or social motivations, her short lived service itself was not notable, but she was a pioneer nonetheless. She set a precedent against all odds and prevailed and in so doing she made a permanent notation in the history of American women, in the history of African-Americans, and in the history of the United States Army.