When I am writing about Denison’s earliest days, the name of Dr. Alex “Sandie” Acheson, a pioneer doctor here, keeps popping up. He may have been a doctor in the south — Texas — but before he came here he fought with the North (Union) soldiers during the War Between the States.
Dr. Acheson said he didn’t keep it a secret; it just didn’t come up in a conversation. He entered the Civil War as a Union Army private in 1861 and two years later was made a captain and an aide de camp on the staff of General Nelson A. Miles.
He was the first officer on the captured Confederate breastworks in the “bloody angle” in the charge of Spottsylvania, Virginia, where he received a cheek wound and carried a scar with him the rest of his life. He also had a brother who lost his life at Gettysburg.
Dr. and Mrs. Acheson had one daughter named Alice who died in 1937, but as a young woman she married Frank Sproule and they had three children, Gene, Alice and Alex, then divorced. Two of the children went with their father, Ira, who then married his second wife, Hester. He and Hester had one daughter, Ann Sproule Rowland who lived in Denison. When Ann was a youngster, Dr. Acheson lived a lot of time at the Sproule house.
Ann was left with a lot of the papers that belonged to Dr. Acheson. A number of years ago I ran into Ann in the grocery store and she told me about having his papers and that she wondered where they could be kept permanently since they are a valuable part of Denison’s history, being the words of one of the founding fathers. Before she placed them at Grayson County Frontier Village she allowed me to copy them, a set for her and one for me and to take the originals to the Frontier Village museum.
Ann’s mother became a good friend with the doctor and in his later life took care of him at his home in the 1400 block West Woodard. The residence had the first gas lights and the first culvert as well as a large circular drive in front. In his later life, Dr. Acheson raised rabbits, Ann remembered.
Not long before he died, he became very confused with what we might today call dementia and kept a big knife like a machete or saber under his pillow in his upstairs bedroom for protection. When Ann’s mom took food to Dr. Acheson she always left Ann downstairs just in case the good doctor was irrational.
His papers are very interesting reading and reveal much about the life of soldiers during the Civil War. Dr. Acheson even published a small booklet called “Decoration Day” which contains a speech he made on Memorial Day, May 30, 1929, in Denison. His words that day would be just as fitting today.
He said, “To be an American is a glorious heritage, made glorious by the endurance and fortitude of the men who carried the Old Flag above the clouds.” He went on to say, “Yes, the world is better off for your deeds while you have left all creation filled with inspiration to imitate your noble work.
“The owner of that grinning skull on Chancellorsville’s bloody field did not die in vain. Through his sacrifice we have become the greatest people in the world, while our children and children’s children are imbued with the same spirit of valor his services indicated.”
In his little book, Dr. Acheson told the story of a man who carved the inscription on his own tombstone and left influence behind him after he was dead, according to his words.
The man he called George was a good soldier and took an interest in tactics. One night he lost his cap going through a thicket. He got a new cap and on the underside of the glazed visor he carved his initials like a person might carve his initials on a gunstock. George always wore his cap with the bill turned up, he said.
Spring arrived and the battle of Chancellorsville took place. This was the conflict in which Stonewall Jackson was killed, Dr. Acheson said. He also talked about the roll call after the battle where it was learned who had survived, George did not answer roll call and was listed among the missing.
That summer was eventful and Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, Champion Hills and Vicksburg battles took place, taking many lives. A new commander from the west took the troops “on to Richmond” and on the first day of the march, about 12 miles without a rest, they arrived back on the old battlefield of Chancellorsville. The men looked around to see if they could discover any remainders of the year before.
Tattered clothes, scattered skeletons, and other remnants of the battle were found. Then they found a grinning skull with a weather beaten cap on it. The bill was turned up the way George wore his cap. A closer look revealed the initials “G.W.S.” carved into the patent leather rim.
They had found the “missing in action” soldier from the year before.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.