Black history month day 8: Union Soldier Cathay Williams.
Cathay Williams was born in Independence Missouri to a free man and a slave woman. In that time, a child’s slave/free status was determined by that of their mother’s, so Cathay was born a slave. In the early stages of the Civil War, the place Williams lived was occupied by Union forces. Slaves that were captured by Union forces were known as “contraband” and were usually pushed into service for the war effort as cooks or nurses. Williams served these efforts as a cook starting when she was 17.
On November 15, 1866, Cathay Williams enlisted in the army for a three year engagement as “William Cathay” and successfully passed herself off as a man. Her deception was discovered during a period of hospitalization two years later and she was discharged.
Williams worked as a cook, a seamstress, and possibly the operator of a boarding house in the years following her military service. She applied for disability pension payments as a former soldier, something that have been given to previous women who posed as men during war efforts, but unfortunately was denied and died shortly thereafter. Her final resting place is unknown, but before she died she was able to give an account of her story and to this day she is the only known African-American woman to serve in the army during the Civil War.