When Cathay Williams enlisted in the army, women were not allowed to serve as soldiers. Therefore, Williams posed as a man, and joined the Thirty-Eighth Infantry. As a result, she became the first and the only known female Buffalo Soldier.
Cathay Williams was born into slavery in Independence, Missouri in 1842. She worked as a house slave for William Johnson, a wealthy planter in Jefferson City, Missouri. She worked for him until his death. About the same time, the Civil War broke out and she was freed by Union soldiers. From thereafter, she worked for the Army as a paid servant. While serving the soldiers, she experienced military life first hand. She served Colonel Benton while he was in Little Rock, Arkansas. She also served General Sheridan and his staff, and was later recruited to Washington to serve as a cook and laundress for them. While traveling with them, she witnessed the Shenandoah Valley raids in Virginia. After leaving Virginia, she traveled to Iowa and then went on to St. Louis. Throughout her time working for the Army, she also had the opportunity to travel to New Orleans, Savannah, and Macon. After the war, Williams wanted to be financially independent so she joined the army. In November 1866, she enlisted as William Cathay in the Thirty-Eighth United States Infantry, Company A. She was able to do so because a medical examination was not required. Only her cousin and a friend were aware of her real identity. Company A arrived at Fort Cummings in New Mexico on October 1, 1867. At the fort, Williams and her company protected miners and traveling immigrants from Apache Indian attack. While serving in Company A, there was insubordination among some of the troops, but Williams was not involved in the incidents.
In 1868, Williams grew tired of military life so she feigned illness. She was examined by the post surgeon who then discovered that she was a woman. She was discharged October 14, 1868.