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Cathay Williams, first Black Woman to join the U.S. Army before women were allowed | #WomensDay

by Milicent Atieno

The geopolitical map of the world was primarily established through war, destruction, and massive loss of lives and properties. As one group of community fight to displace or fend off another group of community. That is how the U.S.A was formed and to a great extent most countries around the world.

It is no secret that men were behind these wars on either offense or defense fronts and back in the days going to war was considered the epitome of manhood. It didn’t get any more macho than that, and men who were considered men would go to war, while boys and sissies would stay at home or run the opposite direction of the war.

Women and children were not expected to go to war, though they will be the casualties should their men lose the war, or they will live to see more days should their men win the war. It was something unnatural for a woman to join the army, and be in the frontline of the war. That is why on this international women’s day we celebrate Cathay Williams (1844 -1893), the first African-American woman to join the United States Army.

She enlisted under the pseudonym William Cathay and went on to serve the army disguised as a man. She was born in Independence, Missouri. Her father was a free man, but her mother was a slave, which made her legally a slave as well. She worked as a house slave on the Johnson plantation in the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri.

In 1861, the Union forces occupied Jefferson City during the early stages of the U.S. Civil War. It was during that time that the Union officials designated slaves as ‘contraband’ and most of them were forced to join the army and perform support roles like cooking, laundry, and nursing.

Cathay Williams William Cathay usa army womens dayWhen she was 17, Williams got was amazed by the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment that she enlisted. Over the next few years, she traveled with the 8th Indiana through Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia. She was once transferred to Little Rock, where she would see other African-American men serving as soldiers; which strengthened her resolved to join the military.

In the old days, women were prohibited from joining the military, but Cathay Williams enlisted under the false name of ‘William Cathay’ on Nov. 15, 1866, at St. Louis, Missouri for a 3-year engagement. She was passing herself off as a man and got assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment after passing the cursory medical exams.

She later developed medical complication following repeated cases of smallpox attacks, the heat wave in New Mexico where she was later posted and cumulative years of marching. Her post surgeon finally discovers she was not a man, but a woman, and informed the post commander. She was discharged from the military on October 14th, 1868.

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