Written by: Kathryn Sheldon, former Curator,Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.
American women have participated in defense of this nation in both war and peacetime. Their contributions, however, have gone largely unrecognized and unrewarded. While women in the United States Armed Forces share a history of discrimination based on gender, black women have faced both race and gender discrimination. Initially barred from official military status, black women persistently pursued their right to serve.
No documented records have been discovered of black women’s military service in the American Revolution. They may well have served alongside black men.
During the Civil War, black women’s services included nursing or domestic chores in medical settings, laundering and cooking for the soldiers. Indeed, as the Union Army marched through the South and large numbers of freed black men enlisted, their female family members often obtained employment with the unit. The Union Army paid black women to raise cotton on plantations for the northern government to sell.
Five black nurses served under the direction of Catholic nuns aboard the Navy hospital ship Red Rover. Four of their names—Alice Kennedy, Sarah Kinno, Ellen Campbell and Betsy Young—have been recorded. Black nurses are in the record books of both Union and Confederate hospitals. As many as 181 black nurses—both female and male—served in convalescent and US government hospitals in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina during the war.
Susie King Taylor, Civil War nurse, cook, and laundress, was raised a slave on an island off the coast of Georgia. In April of 1861, Major General Hunter assaulted Fort Pulaski and freed all the slaves in the area, including Mrs. King. When Union officers raised the First South Carolina Volunteers (an all-black unit), Mrs. King signed on as laundress and nurse. Able to read and write, she also set up a school for black children and soldiers.
Mrs. King’s experiences as a black employee of the Union Army are recounted in her diary. She wrote of the unequal treatment:
"The first colored troops did not receive any pay for eighteen months, and the men had to depend wholly on what they received from the commissary…their wives were obliged to support themselves and children by washing for the officers, and making cakes and pies which they sold to the boys in camp. Finally, in 1863, the government decided to give them half pay, but the men would accept none of this… They preferred rather to give their services to the state, which they did until 1864, when the government granted them full pay, with all back due pay."
Susie King was never paid for her service.
"I was very happy to know my efforts were successful in camp, and also felt grateful for the appreciation of my service. I gave my services willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar. I was glad, however, to be allowed to go with the regiment, to care for the sick and afflicted comrades."
Following the war, Mrs. King established another school for freed slaves. When her husband, Sergeant Edward King of the First South Carolina Volunteers, died in 1866, she collected a widow’s pension. In 1879, she married Russell Taylor. For the remainder of her life, she continued her advocacy for black Civil War troops.
Immediately following the Civil War, William Cathey enlisted in the United States Regular Army in St. Louis, Missouri. William Cathey, intending to serve three years with the 38th US Infantry, was described by the recruiting officer as 5’9” with black eyes, black hair, and a black complexion. The cursory examination by an Army physician missed the fact that William was actually Cathay Williams, a woman.
“William Cathey” served from November 15, 1866, until her discharge with a surgeon’s certificate of disability on October 14, 1868. Despite numerous and often lengthy hospital stays during her service, her sex was not revealed until June 1891, when Cathay Williams applied for an invalid pension and disclosed her true identity. She did not receive the pension, not because she was a woman, but because her disabilities were not service related. Cathay was probably the first black woman to serve in the US Regular Army.