Sunday, January 2, 2011

Cathay Williams

Cathay Williams was born in Independence, Missouri to a free man of color and a woman in slavery, making her legal status also that of a slave. During her adolescence, she worked as a house slave on the Johnson plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri

In 1861 Union forces occupied Jefferson City in the early stages of the Civil War. At that time, captured slaves were officially designated by the Union as contraband, and many were forced to serve in military support roles such as cooks, laundresses or nurses. On November 15, 1866, despite the prohibition against women serving in the military, Cathay disguised herself as William Cathay and enlisted for a three year engagement in the 8th Indiana Volunteer Regiment commanded by William Plummer Benton. A cousin and a friend are the only people known to have been privy to her deception ... both of whom were fellow soldiers in her regiment.

For the next few years, she traveled with the 8th Indiana, accompanying the soldiers on their marches through Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia. She was present at the Battle of Pea Ridge and the Red River Campaign. At one time she was transferred to Little Rock, where she would have seen uniformed African-American men serving as soldiers, which may have inspired her own interest in military service. Later, she was transferred to Washington, DC, where she served with General Philip Sheridan's command. When the war ended, she was working at Jefferson Barracks.

Shortly after her enlistment, Cathay contracted smallpox, was hospitalized and rejoined her unit, which by then was posted in New Mexico. Possibly due to the effects of smallpox, the New Mexico heat, or the cumulative effects of years of marching, her body began to show signs of strain. She was frequently hospitalized. The post surgeon finally discovered she was a woman and informed the post commander. She was discharged from the Army by her commanding officer, Captain Charles E. Clarke on October 14, 1868.

A reporter from St. Louis heard rumors of a female African-American who had served in the army, and interviewed her. Her life and military service narrative was published in The St. Louis Daily Times on January 2, 1876.

In late 1889 or early 1890, she entered a local hospital where she remained for some time. In June 1891 she applied for a disability pension based on her military service. The nature of her illness and disability are unknown. There was a precedent for granting pensions to female soldiers. Deborah Sampson in 1816, and Mary Hayes McCauley (better known as Molly Pitcher) had been granted pensions for disguising themselves as men to serve in the American Revolutionary War. Sampson's cause had been championed by none other than Paul Revere. Cathay had no influential friends to help her.

In September 1891, a doctor employed by the Pension Bureau examined her. Despite the fact that she suffered from neuralgia and diabetes, had had all her toes amputated, and could only walk with a crutch, the doctor decided she did not qualify for disability payments. Her application was rejected.

The exact date of her death is unknown, but it is assumed she died shortly after being denied a pension, probably sometime in 1892. Her simple grave marker would have been made of wood and deteriorated long ago. Thus her final resting place is now unknown.

Click HERE to read more about Cathay.

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