Technically, she was considered contraband when she was taken from her home in Jefferson City, Missouri and forced to work for the Union.
Did she want to go? Was she being rescued? From her perspective, was her life being improved?
Unequivocally, Cathay Williams said, “I did not want to go. He wanted me to cook for the officers, but I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook.”
If you believe the American Civil War was about ending slavery or achieving equality, you should stop reading. While there were those who focused tirelessly on many things we still can’t get right, today, that’s not the point. They weren’t generally running the show. Here’s a telling statement from McClellan (yes, that one) if you don’t believe me. Not only was it not about ending slavery, there was marked concern over owners’ rights to compensation. There was also the exchange of one kind of slavery for another.
Or in McClellan’s phrasing, “The right of the Government to appropriate permanently to its own service claims to slave labor should be asserted.”
Emphases mine, because in all honesty, a rose by any other name still has thorns. Or however the saying goes.
In the eyes of many, de facto enslavement was acceptable as long as it was for the Union.
Military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude, either by supporting or impairing the authority of the master, except for repressing disorder, as in other cases. Slave contraband under the act of Congress, seeking military protection, should receive it. The right of the Government to appropriate permanently to its own service claims to slave labor should be asserted, and the right of the owner to compensation therefore should be recognized.
This principle might be extended, upon grounds of military necessity and security, to all the slaves within a particular State, thus working manumission in such State; and in Missouri, perhaps in Western Virginia also, and possibly even in Maryland, the expediency of such a measure is only a question of time.
Because the Government felt entitled to her labor, Cathay was dragged all over, from Macon to New Orleans to Little Rock to Savannah, serving as cook and laundress for Union soldiers.
In 1866, she enlisted in the United States Army as William Cathey.
She’s most likely not the only Black woman to have done so, especially judging by the approximate number of white women who served before women could officially enlist in 1948. There isn’t as clear an idea of the number of Black women who enlisted, whether during the Civil War, or as “Buffalo Soldiers” in all-Black, peacetime regiments.
If it seems odd that William served the very entity that had plucked Cathay from Jefferson City, consider that one was promised food and shelter in the military. Reconstruction was not kind to Black people, freed or otherwise, and that’s putting it too gently. For many, the Army was the best of a bad lot of options. (To paraphrase William Faulkner in the most obtuse way to avoid being sued like Woody Allen: history repeats itself. Recruiters still often target the marginalized.)
According to Cathay, a couple of people in her regiment knew she was a woman. One of them was her cousin. There was only a cursory medical examination required for enlistment, so she was not barred. In 1866, she was in her early twenties and stood at five feet, nine inches tall, which was above the average for men. Soldiering was not an art to her, nor was she a war hero. She simply did her job for about two years.
Then, she said, “Finally I got tired and wanted to get off. I played sick, complained of pains in my side, and rheumatism in my knees. The post surgeon found out I was a woman and I got my discharge.” The men were less than understanding; she noted, “Some of them acted real bad to me.”
We don’t know an enormous amount about her, and what I’ve used is actually taken directly from a newspaper interview (2 January, 1876, St. Louis Daily Times). The rest comes from pieces of military ephemera… in which William was called things like “feeble.” Cathay was rarely well-treated by men, including a husband whom she had sent to jail, or anyone else.
Predictably, the Army denied her a pension when she applied for one years later.
By simply surviving in a system that cared little for her humanity, she became an unintentional emblem, showing how a literal nom de guerre can flicker in the depths of shameful histories.
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