Buffalo Soldiers 

The First

​Cathay Williams

Cathay Williams, was an American soldier who enlisted in the United States Army under the pseudonym William Cathay. She was the first African-American woman to enlist, and the only documented to serve in the United States Army posing as a man.


Williams was born in Independence, Missouri to a free man and a woman in slavery, making her legal status also that of a slave. During her adolescence, Williams worked as a house slave on the Johnson plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1861 Union forces occupied Jefferson City in the early stages of the American Civil War. At that time, captured slaves were officially designated by the Union as "contraband," and many were forced to serve in military support roles such as cooks, laundresses, or nurses. At age seventeen, Williams was impressed into serving the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel William Plummer Benton.


During her years in the service, she was plagued with illness. while serving in New Mexico. It is said that Cathay Williams contracted smallpox and later a surgeon discovered she was a female. In 1868, she was discharged from the Army. 

African-Americans have fought with distinction in all of this country’s military engagements. However, some of their most notable contributions and sacrifices came during the Civil War. During that conflict, more than 180,000 African-Americans wore the Union Army blue.

Another 30,000 served in the Navy, and 200,000 served as workers on labor, engineering, hospital and other military support projects. More than 33,000 of these gallant soldiers gave their lives for the sake of freedom and their country.

Shortly after the Civil War, Congress authorized the formation of the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry Regiments: Six all-Black peacetime units. Later the four infantry regiments were merged into the 24th and 25th Infantries.

At least 18 Medals of Honor were presented to Buffalo Soldiers during the Western Campaigns. Similarly, 23 African-Americans received the nation’s highest military award during the Civil War. African-Americans have fought in military conflicts since colonial days.

However, the Buffalo Soldiers–comprised of former slaves, 
free-men, and Black Civil War soldiers–were the first to serve during peacetime. Once the Westward movement had begun, prominent among those blazing treacherous trails of the Wild West were the Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. Army.

These African-Americans were charged with and responsible for escorting settlers, cattle herds, and railroad crews. The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments also conducted campaigns against American Indian tribes on a western frontier that extended from Montana in the Northwest to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in the Southwest.

Throughout the era of the Indian Wars, approximately twenty percent of the U.S. Cavalry troopers were Black, and they fought in over 177 engagements. The combat prowess, bravery, tenaciousness, and looks on the battlefield, inspired the Indians to call them “Buffalo Soldiers.”

Many Indians believe the name symbolized the Native American’s respect for the Buffalo Soldiers’ bravery and valor. Buffalo Soldiers, down through the years, have worn the name with pride.


Much has changed since the days of the Buffalo Soldiers, including the integration of all military servicemen and women. However, the stories of the Buffalo Soldiers remain one of unsurpassed courage and patriotism and will be forever a significant part of the history of The United States.