Faces of the Fight: The Battle of Big Bethel

The more I study the Civil War the more I am drawn to the “who” and the “why” rather than the “what.” In researching for the forthcoming book with Doug Crenshaw titled, To Hell Or Richmond, I spent a good deal of time reviewing the Battle of Big Bethel and the maneuvers on the Peninsula prior to the spring 1862 campaign. Much has been done to cover the Battle of Big Bethel by scholars like Cobb, Moore, and Quarstein so I won’t delve into the details of the battle here.

When reviewing the rosters of the regiments who fought there, unique names and curiosities send me down research rabbit holes. Searching for photos, newspapers mentions, help satisfy my need to know more about the “who” and “why.” One of the soldiers who immediately jumps out is Louis A. Mátos. This relatively well-known photo shows up on blogs, Pinterest, and other sources but not much has been written about Mátos.

Private Louis A. Matos of Co. C, 5th New York Infantry Regiment in Union Zouave uniform (Library of Congress)

Scholars will immediately notice Louis’ flamboyant uniform and identify him as one of Duryee’s Zouves. The finding aide for the LOC image notes that Louis was born in Cuba in 1838. A tidbit that makes you go, “hmmmm” and makes you want to find out more. The late Bryan Pohanka’s research as well as Patrick Schroeder’s into the 5th New York is exceptional and gave me a few launching points to dive into Mátos’s life.

One of the earliest references available in English is the roster for the 1856 Fort Edward Institute for Luis A. Mátos who resided in Santiago de Cuba and was in his third term. A few years later in 1861 he enlisted in the Federal Army. The Register of Enlistments lists his age at 26, born in Cuba, and was a machinist in Philadelphia. This corresponds with his April 23, 1861 enlistment and based on the notes it would appear that Luis was living in one of New York’s boroughs when the call to join was made. According to Pohanka & Schroeder he was working at a pharmacy at that time.

The record of the 5th New York is well known, and I assume many of the readers here have stood at many sites associated with the regiment, such as Fort Monroe, Gaines’ Mill, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. For Mátos, August 30, 1862 was a horrific day as it was for many in Duryee’s Zouaves as the regiment was cut to pieces. Luis was captured and apparently paroled the following day with 18 other comrades.

(Save the Colors, by Keith Rocco. http://www.keithrocco.com/inventory/details.php?productid=169)

The US Army’s Register of Enlistments mentioned that “Louis A” enlisted on October 6, 1863 in Philadelphia and served as a steward until discharged on June 8, 1866 at Fort Delaware. What transpired in his life between the fall of 1862 and the following year will take some time to further explore but suffice it to say that Luis had seen at least a half dozen major actions including Big Bethel and was ready to again serve his adoptive country.

In the postwar period Luis apparently visited Cuba once if not twice and by 1870 the US Census recorded him living in Philadelphia with a total real and personal property valued at $9,000. He was working as a druggist and living with his 25 year old wife Sarah and their 3 year old son. A decade later Mr. & Mrs. Mátos had three boys and were still living in the city as he continued to ply his trade in the medical industry.

In 1868, Luis was granted patent 78,532 for an improvement on a medical scale system. In 1896 he spoke about “Free Cuba” during a civic gathering according to the February 21 issue the Philadelphia Inquirer. Did Luis have family in Cuba at the time? The island was in turmoil as a second revolution resulted in a massive Spanish response. Based on his visit(s) to his native land, was he involved in political activism?

(Patent 78,532. Courtesy of Equilibrium, 2006, Issue 1, Pg. 3116).

By 1900 the 63 year old father was now recorded as a “Chemist” and now living in the 24th ward in Philadelphia. On January 21st, 1910 Luis passed away at age 72 in their home at 309 College Ave., Swarthmore, PA. Veterans of the 5th NY were encouraged to attend the services. He buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia and his stone is often accompanied with a GAR medallion, the flag of the United States, and a wreath.

Having briefly dipped into the story of Luis Mátos on the anniversary of his first battle, Big Bethel, I hope you will agree that now that we know a bit more about “who” you want to know “why.”

(Grave. Courtesy of findagrave.com)

2 Responses to Faces of the Fight: The Battle of Big Bethel

  1. Looks like he got a new headstone recently too. FYI I drive to and from work every day through the Big Bethel battlefield. Its sad that there isn’t much left, just a little but of park land and a small cemetery with a monument squeezed in between the road and whats now a reservoir. And its all owned by the Army.

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