Williams was born in Independence, Missouri in September 1844.Her mother was a slave, and her father a free person of color.
During her adolescence, Williams worked as a house slave on the Johnson Plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri. She was freed in 1861 when the Union forces occupied Jefferson City during the Civil War. However, at that time, freed slaves were officially designated by the Union as "contraband," and many were seized and forced to serve in military support roles (such as cooks, laundresses or nurses.)
At age seventeen, Cathy Williams was impressed in this manner into the 8th Indiana volunteer infantry, commanded by Col. William Plummer Benton.For the next several years, Williams travelled alongside the infantry, accompanying the soldiers on their marches throughout Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia. She was present at the Battle of Pea Ridge and the Red River Campaign. At one time she was transferred to Little Rock, where she would have seen uniformed African-American men serving as soldiers in the military, a sight that may have inspired her interest in military service. At another time, Williams was transferred to Washington, D.C., where she served as a part of General Philip Sheridan's command. When the war finally ended,
Williams was stationed at Jefferson Barracks.On November 15, 1866, Cathy Williams decided to enlist, and joined up with the United States Regular Army in St. Louis, Missouri. Being relatively tall (5'9") and physically tough after many years of forced marches and hard physical labor, Williams apparently had no problem passing a cursory physical exam.
She initially signed on for a three-year tour of duty under the name "William Cathay."Two other soldiers in her unit knew her secret. One was a cousin of Williams', and one was a "particular friend" who may have been a romantic interest. Neither man ever revealed Williams' true identity.Shortly after "William Cathay" enlisted, she contracted smallpox. Inevitably, she had to be hospitalized, but managed to disguise her gender even from the military doctors. As quickly as possible,
Williams rejoined her unit, which had been posted in New Mexico.Williams' enlistment lasted just under two years. Possibly due to the lingering effects of smallpox, the New Mexico heat or the cumulative effects of years of marching, her body began to show signs of strain, and she was frequently hospitalized.
The post surgeon discovered her true gender and informed the post commander, who discharged her on October 14, 1868.After her discharge, Cathy Williams worked as a cook at Fort Union, New Mexico, then moved to Pueblo, Colorado. She was married for a time, but it ended badly when Williams' husband stole money and a team of horses from her, and she had him arrested.
After this, she moved to Trinidad, Colorado, and made her living as a seamstress. She may also have owned a boarding house. It was at this time that Williams' story first became public knowledge. A reporter from St. Louis heard rumors of a female African-American who had served in the military, and came to hear her story.
A brief description of Williams' life and military service, told in her own words, was published in the St. Louis Daily Times on January 2, 1876.In late 1889 or early 1890, Williams entered a local hospital for an unrecorded illness and remained there for some time. In June 1891, she applied for a disability pension based on her military service.
There was precedent for granting pension pay to a female soldier. Both Deborah Sampson and Mary Hayes McCauley (better known as Molly Pitcher) had been granted pensions after disguising themselves as men to serve in the American Revolutionary War. Sampson's cause had been championed by none other than Paul Revere. However, Williams had no influential friends to intercede with her in Washington.In September 1891, a doctor employed by the Pension Bureau examined Cathy Williams.
Despite the fact that she suffered from neuralgia and diabetes, all her toes had been amputated, and she could only walk with the aid of a crutch, the doctor determined that she did not qualify to receive disability payments. Her application was rejected.
Cathy Williams' exact date of death is unknown, but it is generally assumed that she died shortly after being denied her pension, sometime in 1892. Her grave would have been marked with a wooden tombstone, and so her final resting place is also unknown.