William Dominick Matthews was a Civil War officer in the Union Army and is best known for leading the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry. Matthews was born a free man in October 25th, 1827, on the eastern shore of Maryland to parents who were interracially married. His father Joseph was a native of Delaware and of African ancestry. Matthews’s mother was the bi-racial slave daughter of a Frenchman, but she eventually gained her freedom when her father passed away.
In 1840 thirteen-year-old Matthews moved to Baltimore and labored as a sailor until he acquired a commercial ship of his own in 1854, which he sailed on both Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. He left Maryland for Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1856 because the discriminatory laws in his home state made it difficult for him to earn a living.
In Leavenworth, Matthews soon became a successful businessman. He was also involved in helping escaped slaves via the Underground Railroad in that region of the nation. In 1860 Matthews converted his home into a station for the railroad to help fugitive slaves escaping from neighboring Missouri, Arkansas, and Indian Territory. Because he had to worry about retaliation by pro-slavery forces across the river in Missouri, Matthews organized one hundred mostly African American men to protect the home when fugitive slaves were hiding there.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Matthew attempted to offer his men to the national government to fight in the Union Army, but they were turned away because they were African American. In 1862 U. S. Senator James H. Lane of Kansas ignored federal regulations in regard to African-Americans in the federal army and allowed black men to enlist in the war effort in Kansas.
Matthews took this opportunity to establish his own company of soldiers and convinced a number of ex-slaves to enlist. He was soon made captain of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, a regiment that soon totaled six hundred men. Matthews was, at that point, the highest-ranking black officer in the Union