Friday, November 25, 2011

Faces of the Civil War: Captain David Acheson

David Acheson (right), pictured with his friend,  George Laughlin (left), and Alexander Sweeney,
another member of the 140th Pennsylvania. Acheson was killed at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.

Killed at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, David Acheson was buried on the battlefield in a temporary grave next to a rock on which a comrade carved the 22-year-old captain's initials. After venturing through a soggy field, I found that off-the-beaten path site in early May. On a foggy Thanksgiving morning, I located Acheson's final resting place in a cemetery in Washington, Pa.

One of nine children of Alexander and Jane Acheson, Acheson served in 12th Pennsylvania Infantry, a three-month regiment, until he was mustered out on Aug. 5, 1861. (1) Nearly a year later, Acheson, a popular student at Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College), re-enlisted and helped raise a company of men for the 140th Pennsylvania Infantry.

Acheson is buried in Washington Cemetery in Washington, Pa., near Pittsburgh.
He attended Washington College before the war. (Photo at right courtesy
One of the most promising young men in his college class, Acheson recruited "the names of many of the best and brightest young men of the town and its environs, a large number of whom were college students or men of more than ordinary education and intelligence." (2) He was elected captain of Company C and two friends who had served with him in the 12th Pennsylvania -- Isaac Vance and Charles Litton -- were named first and second lieutenants.

During the intense and confusing fight in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg on July 2, Acheson was shot twice and killed. "A man of fine physique and of rare nobility of character, he was greatly beloved by all who knew him," a post-war history of the 140th Pennsylvania noted. "His First Lieutenant, Isaac Vance, lost his left hand in the same engagement." (3)

In the 1860 U.S. census, David was listed as one of nine children of Alexander and
Jane Acheson. Three of David's brothers also served during the Civil War.
Alexander Acheson was a judge and prominent attorney in Washington, Pa.


After the Wheatfield fighting was over, Acheson was left behind Confederate lines, but his comrades recovered his body after the battle and buried him in shallow grave about a quarter-mile away on the John Weikert Farm. To mark the spot so his body could be recovered later, a soldier carved the initials "D.A." on a large rock next to Acheson's temporary grave.

To mark David Acheson's temporary gravesite, a soldier
carved the 22-year-old captain's initials on
this rock on the John Weikert Farm at Gettysburg.
Thanks to that man whose name is lost to history, Acheson's family was able to locate the gravesite 10 days after the battle and take his body back to his hometown in Washington, Pa., about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh. One of four Acheson brothers to serve during the Civil War, David was later re-buried on a hillside in Washington Cemetery, about a mile from the center of town and Washington & Jefferson College.

On the front of Acheson's grave is a verse from the 23rd Psalm:

"Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me."

Several years after the war, a veteran from Company C deepened the initials in the rock at Gettysburg and carved 140 PV, a reference to their regiment. Among hardcore Civil War buffs, the Acheson Rock is well known, as is the story of his death. He's even the subject of this book. David Acheson's tragic story is a neat slice of history and one of the reasons the Civil War is so fascinating.

(As I shot the video above, I was watched intently by several nosy cemetery guests: three deer and several wild turkeys.)

(1) American Civil War Research Database
(2)  History of the One Hundred and Fortieth Reigment Pennsylvania Volunteers , Robert Laird Stewart,Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: The Regimental Association, 1912.
(3) Ibid

This doe was interested in my work at Washington Cemetery.

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