John Wishart Acheson was born in Washington in 1837 to Jane Belch Acheson and Alexander W. Acheson, a prominent attorney and judge.
Acheson wrote a series of letters home to his parents during the Civil War, including an account in which he describes his part of the celebrated march by William T. Sherman’s forces through Georgia and the Carolinas.
Acheson was an intensely patriotic young Union officer who craved leadership and promotion. In 1861, the 23-year-old professor of Latin and law student answered Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 Union volunteers after the fall of Fort Sumter and enlisted for three months into the 12th PA Infantry.
When that short term expired, Acheson enlisted for an additional three years into the 85th PA as a lieutenant in Company B. The 85th PA was an infantry regiment established by Uniontown attorney Joshua B. Howell, with soldiers coming from Somerset, Fayette, Greene and Washington counties.
As the war progressed, Acheson continually sought promotion to be the captain of his own company in the 85th PA. Ultimately, however, Acheson felt that Col. Joshua B. Howell broke his promises, and frustrated that his path to advancement was blocked, Acheson transferred to the staff of Col. Absalom Baird, also a Washington native, in early 1864 as an adjutant in the Regular Army for Chattanooga.
As the 85th PA soon left South Carolina to join the Army of the James to fight on the Richmond-Petersburg front in Virginia, Acheson went west and participated in the campaign to capture Atlanta called Sherman’s March to the Sea. Acheson was wounded on Sept. 1, 1864, at the Battle of Jonesboro, Ga., but soon rejoined Sherman’s Army.
After the fall of Atlanta in December 1864, Sherman began a northern march through South Carolina and North Carolina to eventually join with Ulysses S. Grant’s forces in Petersburg, Va. The Union goal was to use these combined forces to crush Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and end the stalemate along the Petersburg-Richmond front.
Contesting Sherman in a series of battles during this Carolina Campaign in early 1865 were Confederate forces under Gen. Joseph Johnston. A decisive engagement took place between the two armies March 19-21, 1865, at Bentonville, N.C. After repeated attempts to break through the Union lines, Johnston withdrew his forces on the third day.
Lee soon surrendered on April 9 to Grant at Appomattox, Va.; Johnston surrendered his army to Sherman several weeks later in North Carolina.
John Acheson’s letter is written from Bentonville on the last day of the three-day battle. His letter confirms that, contrary to popular myth, Sherman’s Army did not go out of its way to destroy southern farmlands in Georgia as it marched from Atlanta to Savannah. But once Sherman’s men entered South Carolina, marauding, theft and destruction on the part of some Union soldiers became more prevalent and somewhat out of control.
“In Georgia, private property, except what was necessary for the subsistence of the Army, was generally respected,” Acheson wrote. “Few houses were burned, and they had been foolishly abandoned by the inhabitants. But in South Carolina, the whole country through which the Army passed was made as desolate as the plains of Egypt.”
Acheson also describes the use of “torpedoes” or land mines intended to slow Sherman’s Army. In addition, he describes the “legitimate foraging” of farms, but deplores Union “stragglers” who went off on their own to steal and pillage.
“ … As for the wealthy planters were concerned, nobody sympathized with them in the desolation of their homes, but scores of poor families have I seen, who had had no hand in bringing the present trouble upon the country, left without a mouthful to eat, and not knowing where to turn to get it, or what in the world to do to relive their distress,” Acheson wrote. “I have many times heard mothers say that they did not care for themselves if they could only get something for their children to eat; and hundreds of them have come to the General along the march and begged him to let them go with the Army, for if left behind they would surely starve.
“… But it is not from legitimate foraging alone that the people suffer. Outrages of every description are committed by the stragglers from our columns. These men know that they can wander off from the column, enter houses and commit whatever depredations they choose without any fear of detection. Dwellings are pillaged – the inhabitants threatened with death, unless they bring forth their money and other hidden valuables; rings and earrings taken by force from persons of women; and outrages of every description perpetrated by men who have slipped away from their commands.”
Acheson had three younger brothers in the Union army. Capt. David Acheson died at age 22 at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, leading Company C from the 140th PA Infantry.
Alexander “Sandie” Acheson, 19, enlisted as a private in David’s Company C and was eventually promoted to captain in 1864. He was shot in the face at the Battle of Spotsylvania, Va., in 1864, but survived. Following the war, Sandie, who was a medical doctor, moved to Texas. He died in 1934 at the age of 91. He was the longest living officer from the 140th PA.
Joseph McKnight Acheson enlisted in 1864 at age 16 into an artillery battery. He died at age 38 in Iowa in 1886. Another brother, Ernest, served in the House of Representatives for 14 years.
Following the war, John W. Acheson studied medicine and became a doctor. He developed a severe addiction to alcohol and died in 1872 at age 34.
Dan Clendaniel is a graduate of California High School and California University of Pennsylvania, Class of 1978. He is a retired teacher, having taught school in Prince William County in Manassas, Va., for 34 years. He also was a teacher-in-residence at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va. He is nearing the completion of a history of the 85th PA Civil War Regiment, which consisted of men from Washington, Greene, Fayette and Somerset counties. Two of his ancestors were in Company D.