For two years after the first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, neither the Union nor Confederate governments would enlist African American soldiers. Yet after a Black harbor pilot, Robert Smalls, successfully piloted the steamship Planter through the Confederate blockade of Charleston Harbor, the North reconsidered. On Jan. 26, 1863, the first Black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was formed.

One of its volunteers was 19-year-old Isaac Sawyer, a Vermont stablehand who enlisted on April 3, 1863, as a private. For Sawyer, as for other volunteers, this was a fight to liberate enslaved Blacks.

Fort Sumter was key to taking Charleston, and the batteries on Morris Island were key to taking Fort Sumter. One of those, Battery Wagner, blocked the Union army’s advance. At sunrise, the 54th Massachusetts led a massive assault of 6,000 troops to overrun the earthen battery on July 18.

Later that afternoon, Union troops advanced, expecting the battery to be badly compromised from heavy fire. They were surprised to find that Battery Wagner had withstood their fire that day, its guns were manned and ready. The Union infantry was stymied by the narrow strip of beach, some wading knee-deep in the ocean’s surf. Their commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the only White soldier in their unit, was immediately killed. Isaac Sawyer survived, however, was captured and imprisoned in the Old District Jail on Magazine Street.

Though that battle was lost, there was a victory in that the 54th’s attack inspired thousands of African Americans to fight in the U.S. military.

After the war, Sawyer returned to Charleston, where he remained for the rest of his life. He married a local girl with whom he fathered 10 children and became a barber with shops near the Market and on King Street near Hasell. His first recorded residence was 53 Calhoun Street, though census records and city directories show the family moved several times.

The decades following Reconstruction were tough and difficult for the Sawyer family, as Jim Crow laws emerged. Eleven-year-old Isaac Junior died of a seizure and the family lost their home and one of their daughters in the Great Earthquake of 1886. Isaac himself began to experience health issues. Thirty years and a day from the 54th Massachusetts’ charge on Battery Wagner, Isaac Sawyer died at age 49 and was buried at Monrovia Union Cemetery just east of I-26 in Charleston Neck. A headstone was placed there in his honor on Veterans Day 2005.

To learn more untold stories, visit Fort Sumter, one of the most popular parks in Charleston.