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Alexis Coe’s past essays on history for The Toast can be found here. This, and all subsequent editions of Alexis’ columnn (!) are brought to you courtesy of a sweet and generous sponsor who wishes to be known as The Ghost of Jane Addams.

Cathay_WilliamsHow carefully did the Army surgeons in St. Louis, Missouri assess new recruits? The examination of William Cathay on November 15, 1866, suggests it was superficial, at best. If there was any indication of the poor health that would preclude the new recruit from serving a full three years of service, the attending physician missed it—as he did the appendage necessary for service.

Cathay Williams may not have known about her poor health, but she knew exactly what she was doing when she dressed in men’s clothing and swapped the order of her first and last name. Women were not allowed to serve in the military, but as Cathay would tell a reporter a decade later, “I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.”

Not financially, perhaps, but Cathay was very much dependent on her cousin and a friend, both of whom served alongside her in the 38th infantry. At five foot nine, Cathay fit in with the all-black male unit in the Jefferson barracks, but her military career was plagued by ill health. Shortly after enlisting, Cathay contracted smallpox and was hospitalized, where she once again benefitted from overworked, inattentive physicians. She not only managed to conceal her gender during examinations, but also treatment, and what must have been a somewhat lengthy hospitalization.

Fort CummingsBy the time she was deemed well enough to rejoin her infantry, they were stationed at Fort Cummings in New Mexico (pictured today), and a weakened Cathay took to the dangerous roads and headed south. Whatever strength smallpox had taken from her was sapped further by the arduous journey, and the heat in New Mexico only seemed to worsen her condition. Still, she took up the inferior weapons, never complaining about the inadequate supplies and paltry rations Washington deemed fit for black soldiers, but it’s unlikely she saw much action. “I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the army, but finally I got tired and wanted to get off,” she later explained to a newspaper reporter.

In October, 1886, during yet another series of hospitalizations, the attending physical finally noticed what had escaped so many of his colleagues, and immediately reported her. Captain Charles E. Clarke, her commanding officer, quickly wrote up discharge papers for the soldier William Cathay, who was “feeble both physically and mentally, and much of the time unfit for duty.”

We do not know if she was taken out of the men’s ward and barracks, and sent to room with the only women on site, the nurses, cooks, and laundresses, but she knew the men in her infantry wanted her gone. Cathay offered a reporter very little about this time, but what she did say was as vexing as it is vague: “Some of them acted real bad to me.”

The poet Shane McCrae had as little to go on when he wrote “The Ballad of Cathay Williams William Cathay”, but what he imagined doesn’t seem outlandish.

A white man wouldn’t less

He stripped me naked was

Whipping me know

I was a woman got

A name just turn

It inside out

And I’m a man

How else I’m gonna know myself

When I am called

national archives discharge papersCathay’s official reason for discharge was not the lie that garnered her a place in the army, but rather the toll military service appeared have on her health. Captain Clarke, who filed the order, wrote “The origin of his infirmities is unknown to me.” She was physically unwell, but whether her condition had truly been a result of her time in the military, or she arrived in poor health, seemed irrelevant to him; as a veteran, she would be able to procure aid from the government. Perhaps Clarke, certainly the wiser by that point, continued to refer to Cathay as a man out of embarrassment, having missed any clues for over two years, but it could have also been a real act of generosity.

Cathay had been born to a free man and an enslaved woman near Independence, Missouri. When she was just a little girl, her owner, a wealthy farmer named William Johnson, moved her to his new plantation in  Jefferson City, Missouri. Her mother died there, and according to Cathay, so did her master, “when the war broke out and the United States soldiers came to Jefferson…Col. Benton of the 13th army corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go.”

Col. Benton was well within his legal right to do so, as fugitive slaves who had labored for the Confederacy were declared “contraband of war.” Was she a fugitive? Did it matter? Her master was dead, and though she had been a house servant and did not know how to cook, Union soldiers needed someone to prepare their food, and as contraband, Cathay was free labor. She learned to cook and travelled with them at, perhaps, age fifteen, watching cotton burned and rebel gunboats captured. She ended up in the Shenandoah valley as a washerwoman for General Sheridan, eventually making her way to  St. Louis. There, she had the choice to continue on as a forced laborer, or join her cousin and friend—perhaps the only people she knew and trusted anymore—as military recruits. There did not appear to be a third option.

There was no home for her to return at that point, or later, after she had received her discharge papers, thus Cathay stayed in New Mexico, demoted from soldier to cook at Fort Union. Perhaps the poor treatment progressed there, or her health continued to falter in the heat. Whatever the reason for departure, Cathay soon lit out for Colorado, and married. Little is known about her union, how it came about or whether it was a happy one, but we do know it ended poorly. After long hours spent laboring as a laundress and seamstress, Cathay came home to find her hard earned assets—a watch and chain, a hundred dollars, a team of horses, and a wagon—had been pilfered by her own husband. She had him arrested and jailed, and by 1876, she was living in Trinidad, Colorado, where she may have owned a boarding house.

“I like this town,” she said. “I know all the good people here and I expect to get rich yet.”

It doesn’t seem that Cathay became wealthy, but her legacy as the first African-American woman to serve in the military followed her. In 1876, a Missouri reporter traveled all the way to Colorado in search of her story.

RejectedClaimforDisability care of national archivesUnfortunately for Cathay, whatever fame the St. Louis Daily Times story brought her did little to improve her lot. By 1889, her toes had been amputated and she was unable to walk without the aid of a crutch. Self-reliance had become untenable, with her body weakening and expenses rising. After nearly a year of frequent and lengthy hospitalizations, she applied for disability payments. She may have known about the few women who had secured pensions before her, and been encouraged by their success. Deborah Sampson, for example, served under the name Robert Shurtieff during the American Revolution, and received aid after she was honorably discharged at West Point in 1783. But Sampson had Paul Revere on her side, and whether it was a result of circumstance or pride, Cathay had no one to argue with the Pension Bureau doctor in 1891. He must have watched her hobble around on her toeless feet, and examined her deteriorating body, plagued by diabetes and neuralgia, and yet he nonetheless recommended Cathay not receive disability payments. Her application was soon denied.

Cathay died shortly thereafter, likely within a year. The exact date is unknown, as is her final resting place.

Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.

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