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During a tour of duty with Company A of the 38th Infantry, one of the all-black Army regiments established after the Civil War, one private—different from all the rest—marched with the unit more than 500 miles from Fort Harker, Kansas, to Fort Union, New Mexico Territory and, some months later, some 400 more miles to Forts Cumming and Bayard, New Mexico Territory.

The U.S. Army, though tough duty, was an attractive destination for newly freed slaves, who had few postwar employment opportunities. In the Army, they could get a paycheck, regular meals, a bed and medical care. Physical exams were cursory; recruits who could march and shoot often were simply declared fit for duty.

Marching was an essential component, as in 1867 the 38th Infantry was on the move. From central Kansas the soldiers tramped across plains, forded rivers, ventured into hostile Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), plodded across shadeless desert sands, trekked the dusty Santa Fe Trail and scrambled over mountains higher than they had ever imagined. Exhaustion must have been their constant companion.

One particular recruit—Private William Cathey, who had enlisted at a St. Louis recruiting office in November 1866—successfully made the long march while keeping an extraordinary secret. Cathey’s mystery, had it been known, would have resulted in court-martial, for it was illegal for this soldier to be in the U.S. Army.

Cathey, who marched with the company, ate with them, joked with them and slept beside them, was not as he seemed. His fellow soldiers would have been shocked to learn that beneath the private’s bulky Zouave uniform was the body of Cathay Williams, a female ex-slave who had joined the Army to support herself. (Documents suggest the female spelling was “Cathay,” the male spelling “Cathey”; other references call her “Cathy.” Williams herself was illiterate and likely would not have known the difference.)

Although female soldiers had fought in both the Union and Confederate armies, it remained illegal for women to serve in the military. Williams must have been ever alert to ensure the subterfuge would not be revealed.

This young recruit, age unknown (perhaps only 15 but possibly in her early 20s), had been born near Independence, Missouri, to a free father and a slave mother. Little else is known of her early life except that the Union Army had pressed her into service as a young girl to cook and launder clothes for XIII Corps. She grew accustomed to military life and being on the march, which must have made her later deception easier.

Cathey’s enlisted life, like that of the other buffalo soldiers, was tough. The Army provided these black men with inadequate supplies and equipment, the environment in the frontier West was harsh, and they endured racism from white civilians and even their own white officers. What’s more, cholera was endemic in the areas where they marched.

Cathey/Cathay performed the same duties required of everyone in her troop and showed no signs of femininity during the long march. She continually faced the fear of discovery, as well as the specter of disease that claimed the lives of so many others in her regiment. It took determination and vigilance to maintain her secret. She could never drop her guard, not for a minute.

While she may have been able to conceal her body shape, for basic hygiene she required privacy—a rarity in the Army. Surely she sought seclusion, but that, too, was scarce. No one knows how she coped with these challenges.

The career of this young, illiterate black woman, unlike the secret she held close, was unremarkable. She marched and performed duties conscientiously and stayed out of trouble. In an interview published in the St. Louis Daily Times on January 2, 1876, after her service, she recalled, “I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the Army.” She also boasted of having never been put in the guardhouse.

Although Cathey may have appeared healthy, the 5-foot-7 soldier often fell ill, suffering from smallpox, rheumatism and neuralgia, and at some point doctors amputated her toes, a possible result of diabetes. The young private logged several visits to the infirmary and several hospital stays, yet her secret remained undetected, which speaks volumes about the medical care (seemingly superficial) provided to the black soldiers at the time.

Eventually, she explained in the Daily Times interview, “I got tired and wanted to get off [out of the Army]. I played sick, complained of pains in my side and rheumatism in my knees.” During an 1868 visit to the infirmary she finally revealed the secret she had held so firmly— though, it turns out, others already knew the truth. In her newspaper interview Williams explained:“Two persons, a cousin and a particular friend, members of the regiment, knew that I was a woman. They never ‘blowed’ on me. They were partly the cause of my joining the Army. Another reason was I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends. The [Fort Bayard] post surgeon found out I was a woman, and I got my discharge,” she continued. “The men all wanted to get rid of me after they found out I was a woman. Some of them acted real bad to me.”

The surgeon issued a certificate of disability, dated October 14, 1868, stating the soldier was of “feeble habit…continually on sick report without benefit [and] unable to do military duty.” He said the “condition” predated enlistment. The subsequent discharge papers refer to Cathey/Cathay as “he,” perhaps because the officers feared courts-martial for having a female in the regiment.

After her release Williams remained in New Mexico Territory, where she had spent two-thirds of her military duty. She soon moved to Pueblo, Colorado, and had a brief, unhappy marriage. According to Williams her husband was “no account.” She had amassed horses and wagon, which he stole, along with her “watch and chain, [and] a hundred dollars.” Refusing to bow to anyone, she had the man arrested. Williams retained her independent spirit. “I’ve got a good sewing machine, and I get washing to do and clothes to make,” she told the St. Louis reporter. “I want to get along and not be a burden to my friends or relatives.”

Although she was not the only woman to serve in uniform in her era, Cathay Williams was the only documented female buffalo soldier, and she seems to have kept her gender disguised for the longest period. From 1866 to 1868 an uneducated, illiterate former slave managed to deceive her fellow soldiers, officers and post medical personnel. To this day no one knows how she did it, but if not for that secret she carried daily, her name, like those of countless other ex-slaves, would have vanished into history.

Williams didn’t join the U.S. Army to highlight the often-desperate plight of women, black or white, or to prove she could outwit her peers and superiors. She was simply an independent woman who found a way to take care of herself. Her story is amazing, even if she didn’t shoot anyone or win any medals.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Wild West.