Born in Maryland in 1827, William D. Matthews had worked as a seaman from Baltimore before moving to Leavenworth Kansas in 1856 and opening the Waverly House, a boardinghouse that reportedly became a station on the Underground Railroad.
“While I entertained them (wealthy Whites of the town) in the front of the house my back door was always ajar for the fleeing traveler on the Underground Railroad which had one of its terminals at my house and in connection with John Brown and other anti-slavery men I succeeded in baffling the pursuers,” he said. “At one time I had secreted in my house, one hundred slaves, every one of whom were safely landed where they could be free.”
In 1861, he converted his house into a safe home for runaways. “At this time I organized a company of 100 men and stood guard night and day protecting the slaves as they came to Kansas from their masters.” He added, “I also offered my services with my company of 100 men to the government to aid in the war but was told that it was a white man’s war and we were not wanted.”
The federal government’s antipathy toward the enlistment of African-Americans had shifted to acceptance by 1862, as the military and political realities of a long and costly war set in. Policy changes and popular sentiment made possible what only months before seemed unthinkable: an army of black men in blue.
That summer, the Kansas senator Jim Lane interpreted an order to recruit new regiments to include black troops. Thanks to Matthews’s network of connections he had made in the White and Black communities, he was perfectly positioned as a recruiter. Not finding enough recruits in Leavenworth, in October 1864, Lieutenant Matthews, journeyed to Ft. Scott to complete his assignment.
According to a newspaper article, “White men were to hold the commissioned offices in the first colored regiment. But it was agreed by the leaders of the movement to make soldiers of ex-slaves that one captaincy should be given to Matthews, in view of his invaluable service in recruiting and holding together the men.”
Months passed while Matthews and his comrades waited to formally muster into the Union Army. During this time, a 240-man federal force, which included a detachment of troops from the First, marched into Missouri with orders to break up a gang of rebel guerrillas. On Oct. 29, 1862, it engaged in a victorious skirmish along the slope of a low hill known as Island Mound.
The engagement at Island Mound is widely recognized as the first known combat that involved Black troops in the Civil War.
In mid-January 1863, about two weeks after the Emancipation Day barbecue, the men formally mustered — without Matthews. The officer assigned to muster him in declined to do so, he explained, because he lacked the authority to enroll a person of African descent as a company officer. The captaincy instead went to a white man.
A distraught and disappointed Matthews worried about the impact of the decision on his recruits and fired off a letter of protest to Senator Lane. Outraged friends worked military and political channels on his behalf. But these efforts failed to reverse the decision.
Matthews returned to Leavenworth. After stints as a policeman and an army recruiter, he signed up men for the Independent Battery, United States Colored Light Artillery.
In February 1865, with the end of the war clearly in sight, attitudes towards black officers had shifted slightly in their favor. Matthews mustered in as a lieutenant and served with distinction.
Matthews became an influential figure in politics as a member of the Kansas Republican Central Committee. He died in 1906 at age 78.
Kansas Black History Facts are compiled for The Community Voice by Donna Rae Pearson.
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