By Tami from What Tami Said.
Next time you read a story about the trials faced by women in the modern military, think of Cathy Williams, the first recorded African American woman to serve in the United States Army.
Williams was born into bondage, the child of a slave and a free person of color. The year 1861 brought freedom of sorts. That was when Civil War Union forces occupied Jefferson City, Missouri, near where Williams worked as a house slave. Indentured blacks were freed, but designated as "contraband." Many black women were seized and forced to serve the military as nurses, cooks or laundresses. It was in this manner that Williams came to accompany the 8th Indiana volunteer infantry. It is imagined that the next several years spent traveling alongside soldiers through Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia, inspired Williams' interest in military service.
On November 15, 1866, with the war ended, Williams decided to join the United States Regular Army in St. Louis. Statuesque and toughened by years of hard labor, Williams easily passed a cursory physical exam. Indeed, the check-up was so cursory that Williams was able to enlist for a three-year tour of duty as a man named "William Cathay." Williams served for less than two years as a Buffalo Soldier in New Mexico. Her body, which had been ravaged by illness, forced marches and brutal work, had begun to fail. She was frequently hospitalized, and during an illness in October 1868, her gender was discovered and she was discharged.
Williams held a variety of jobs following her military service. She worked as a cook, a seamstress and she may have owned a boarding house. She married for a time, but had her husband arrested when he stole money and a team of horses from her. In 1876, a curious reporter found Williams, interviewed her and published a story about her brave military service in the St. Louis Daily Times.
In about 1890, a weakened Williams entered a hospital for an unrecorded illness. In June 1891, she applied for a disability pension based on her military service. Deborah Sampson and Mary Hayes McCauley (Molly Pitcher), white women who disguised themselves as men to serve in the Revolutionary War, had previously been granted pensions. Williams, who suffered from neuralgia and diabetes, had all her toes amputated and could walk only with a crutch, was deemed ineligible by a doctor from the Pension Bureau. Request rejected.
It is believed that Williams died soon after being denied her pension, some time in 1892. Her final resting place is unknown.
Imagine the fortitude it takes to march alongside soldiers in a time of war. Imagine the patriotism it takes to serve a country that believes you a second class citizen because of your race and gender. Imagine the courage it takes to hide your femininity while you work alongside men in the brutal Western heat. Imagine the independent spirit it takes to live as a single woman in a time when women are powerless. Imagine the savvy it takes for an uneducated woman to run her own business, have her own money and a team of horses, too. Imagine having your accomplishments denied as you lie broken on your deathbed.
Today, remember Cathy Williams.
To read more by Tami visit What Tami Said.
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