My master died there and when the [American Civil War] broke out and the United States soldiers came to Jefferson City they took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock. Col. Benton of the 13th Army Corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go. ~ Cathay Williams
Considered contraband, the 17-year-old Williams was forced to work as a cook and washerwoman. After the war ended, and with few prospects for work, she decided to enlist in the Army alongside her cousin and a friend. Since women were prohibited from joining the Army, the 5-foot-9 Williams disguised herself a man and switched her first and last name to complete the rouse.
On November 15, 1866, Williams was considered fit for duty and assigned to Company A of the 38th Infantry, one of four all-black units newly formed that year. She became the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Army, and the only black woman documented to serve in the Army in the 19th Century.
Her enlistment was fraught with illness — she quickly contracted smallpox and was hospitalized several times over the next two years. Her secret was not discovered until her last hospital stay, at which time the the post surgeon informed her commanding officer. She was given a disability discharge.
The post surgeon found out I was a woman and I got my discharge. 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. ~ Cathay Williams
Williams moved to Colorado where her bad health continued to plague her. She attempted to apply for a disability pension through her military service, but the application was rejected. It is unknown exactly when Williams died. Sources indicate she did not appear in the 1900 census.