Gettysburg, 1863. Two families, two fates.
Both sent sons into the bloody battle with the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteers. One returned, one didn’t. This is their story.
The families of David Acheson and John Burns had long been linked, dating back to the Ireland and Scotland of the 1600s.
As James I was giving us the King James Version of the Bible and colonizing Jamestown in far-off America, he was also moving lowland Scots over to the north of Ireland in a second colonization scheme.
The Acheson and Burns families ended up as neighbors, farmers working the land near the village of Markethill in County Armagh. The next century saw both families send sons to America, both making the trip under duress and both ending up in Washington, Pa., neighbors once again.
Alexander Burns was whisked away — shanghaied — by the British Navy in 1754 to serve as a sailor on a man-of-war.
But he jumped ship in New York and, after fighting the Brits in the Revolution, settled in southwestern Pennsylvania.
John Acheson also departed Markethill under stress, that of business debts and a bad marriage. But his new mercantile business in Washington flourished, and he sent for his younger brother David to come over and join him.
The two families were also Calvinist co-religionists, members of the Markethill Seceder Church, which had hived off from the mainline Presbyterian Church to preserve their principles.
Burns family letters of the 1790s to Alexander’s family in America were addressed to “David Acheson, shopkeeper, Washington, Pensilvania.” Later letters corrected the spelling.
But the families drifted apart in the next century, the Burnses becoming farmers outside Washington while the Achesons remained in town, businessmen and bankers.
Gettysburg would bring them back together.
When war came, both sent sons to enlist in the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
David Acheson, grandson of the shopkeeper, and John Burns, great-grandson of the shanghaied sailor, were college students at the time. But they were more than willing to trade books for battles, both recruiting their friends and neighbors to fill out the regiment’s roster.
John Burns was a sergeant in Company A; David Acheson was captain of Company C. David wrote of their baptism of fire at Chancellorsville, bullets zinging by and bombs bursting.
“It would be impossible to describe the feelings of a green soldier; a holy horror seizes him at first, but he soon becomes accustomed to the whizzing and bursting of fiery messengers and trusts to fate,” he wrote.
But suddenly the 140th was at Gettysburg and thrust into the front lines, a farmer’s field where wheat of golden hue ran red with blood, forever after known simply as The Wheatfield or the Valley of Death, though John Burns’ younger brother used a different name in describing John’s fate.
“John celebrated his twentieth birthday in the Vortex of Death, the wheat field where men were mowed down by the thousand. His brigadier general, Zook, was killed; his colonel, Roberts, was killed; his captain, McCullough, seriously wounded.”
Because both of Company A’s lieutenants were also disabled, John “came out of the battle in command of his company.”
Sadly, Capt. David Acheson did not survive the withering blaze of rebel guns, South Carolina and Georgia units rapidly advancing across the wheatfield.
“Men of the 140th reeled and fell on every side,” two regimental histories reported. “... David Acheson, a young officer of rare ability and winsome personality, was killed.”
A newspaper account added that “a shot pierced the noble breast of Captain Acheson.”
In some sense, the carnage was incalculable since numbers alone don’t measure grief, sadness, pain and the potential of young lives lost forever.
David Acheson was an outstanding young man, a leader who might have been a lawyer and judge like his father, or a banker, businessman and politician like his grandfather — the David Acheson who came over from Markethill.
This is the true but unknowable measure of battle loss — what might have been.
John Burns survived the battle and became a minister, his brother describing the effects of warfare: “The war had made a deep impression on John; the awful wickedness he had seen awakened the deepest religious feelings of his soul, and he entered the ministry, hoping to make the world better by teaching the gospel of peace and good will.”
On this Fourth of July and 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, may the men of the 140th and other units be remembered.
James F. Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.