Cathay Williams was the first African American woman to enlist and be documented as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Williams posed as a man named William Cathay, knowing that the army would not check her gender and assume she was a man.
Williams was born a slave in Independence, MO. She was raised on a plantation in Jefferson City, MO. At the breakout of the Civil War, slaves were labeled as ‘contraband’ by the Union Army and women were forced to serve as military cooks, maids and nurses. Seventeen-year-old Cathay Williams traveled through the Midwest and neighboring states as part of the military. But once she saw the soldiers fighting in battle, she wanted to be a part of the field action.