‘A Great Fight for Freedom’
January 3, 2013, 12:45 pm
By RONALD S. CODDINGTON
The overcast skies of Jan. 1, 1863, ushered in the era of emancipation across the Kansas prairie. The absence of sunshine, though, did not dampen the spirits of the men of the First Kansas Colored Infantry at their camp at Fort Scott. That afternoon they celebrated the issuance of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in what an eyewitness described as the old-fashioned Southern style: barbecue and speechmaking.
Three flags, all sewn by women of color, floated above the gathering of about 500 people. The festivities commenced with a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and everyone joined in the chorus. Then, the soldiers sat down at tables arranged in a large rectangle outside the regimental headquarters. The men feasted on roasted ox, hogs and chickens, and stuffed themselves with bread, cakes and other delicacies. Regimental officers and special guests sat at a separate reserved table.
After dinner, the men were marched before their officers, and listened to speeches by their colonel and others. An observer declared the remarks of one black captain to be the most original of the day for their humor and earnestness.
That man, a 35-year-old Marylander named William D. Matthews, had played a crucial role in the recruitment of the regiment. His comments, entitled “The Southern Loyalists,” opened with a friendly warning: “I cannot make a speech, but that you’ll find out.” He continued, “I was not privileged enough to have been raised in a State where I could obtain an education. I am a Southern man with Northern principles, am therefore entitled, both from that fact and my color, to represent the Southern loyalist, a few of whom are around us to-day, and many more waiting our coming.”
Matthews soon arrived at his central point. “To-day is a day for great rejoicing with us. The President has proclaimed freedom. The Southern loyalists hear and intend to take it. I am not surprised while I rejoice. As a thinking man I never doubted this day would come, for I believed in God. It was a crime to hold and a sin to be a slave. If the Bible be true, we know that there can be no nation unpunished in which such are permitted. For my part, I believe myself responsible to God for my acts and not to man. Therefore I claim to be entitled to as much of His freedom as any other man, and if His act debarred me therefrom, then He would not be a just God.”
Matthews concluded with a rousing war cry: “Let me speak a word to my people. Now is our time to strike. Our own exertions and our own muscle must make us men. If we fight we shall be respected.”
Matthews’s journey to Kansas began along the Eastern Shore of the Old Line State, where he was born free to mixed-race parents. His father, Joseph, was a man of African descent who hailed from Delaware. His mother, the half-white slave daughter of a Frenchman, had gained her release from bondage upon her father’s death.
In a 1904 interview, Matthews recognized the limits of liberty for himself and other freeborn African-Americans in the antebellum 19th century. “In the days of slavery a free man fared worse than a slave, for the master’s interest in his prosperity sometimes caused him to help his slave but free men had no protection.”
As Matthews noted in his Emancipation Day speech, “The first time I knew of any difference on account of color was when, a little chap, I thrashed a white boy for breaking my wagon. His father came to mine and wanted to cowhide me. Now, I always thought my father the greatest man in the world, and able to whip any one, for he could whip me, and he had told me always to behave myself, but not be imposed upon. But he told me I mustn’t strike a white boy, for, being black, the law would punish me.”
Matthews moved to Baltimore in the late 1840s and worked as a sailor until 1854, when he purchased his own vessel and worked the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River. But discriminatory laws limited his ability to make a living. He sold the boat and left Maryland. “I always believed in freedom and determined to find a place freer than that State,” he declared. Matthews relocated to Kansas in 1856, where he “found a great fight for freedom in progress.”
Matthews quickly made a name for himself as an enterprising businessman. “In Leavenworth I opened a large eating house where I was patronized by most of the wealthy whites of the town.” But he also used his position and resources to help escaped slaves. “While I entertained them 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.” Matthews also collaborated with local abolitionists, including the suffragist Susan B. Anthony’s brother, Daniel, to resist slave hunters.
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. According to a newspaper article, “The first ‘man of color’ taken into the scheme was Matthews. He not only raised his own company, but he brought in 200 ex-slaves to swell the ranks.” This number is likely exaggerated, as records in the War Department credit him with a still impressive 81 recruits. Whatever the number, volunteers throughout the regiment regarded him as more than an organizer. “Matthews was the ruling spirit with the men,” one said. “He more than any one person, black or white, held the organization together.”
The article continued, “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 skirmishalong the slope of a low hill known as Island Mound. One of the rebel leaders reportedly told a New York Times correspondent that “the black devils fought like tigers, and that the white officers had got them so trained that not one would surrender, though they tried to take a prisoner.”
The engagement at Island Mound is widely recognized as the first known combat that involved black troops in the Civil War. It occurred nine months before the 54th Massachusetts Infantry famously assaulted the Confederate garrison at Fort Wagner on Morris Island in South Carolina.
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. One of his superiors praised him: “You have been a model of proper discipline and subordination, strictly attentive to duty, promptly obedient to orders, and acting with a wise discretion in all matters requiring the exercise of your individual judgment.”
Matthews mustered out with his comrades in October 1865 and returned to his home and wife, Fanny, whom he married shortly before he enlisted in the artillery. They raised four children who lived to maturity.
Matthews became an influential figure in politics as a member of the Kansas Republican Central Committee. He died in 1906 at age 78.