As we gather around the board, enjoying our Thanksgiving meal and the company of family and friends, many of us think of the earliest Thanksgivings, especially the one in 1621 where the early Colonists enjoyed the bounties of their harvest with their Native American neighbors. Some of us may remember the Thanksgivings of our earlier years - first as children, sitting at the small table with siblings and cousins too young to engage in conversation with the older members of the family. Some may remember the first Thanksgiving as a married person, spent at the home of parents or in-laws, possibly involving the first marital spat as the discussion of what household to go to got heated. Some may recall the first Thanksgiving they hosted in their own home - the decision of what was to be the main course (turkey, ham, roast?) may have seemed monumental at the time. But how many of us think of the Thanksgivings of war-time (many may be concerned with that today) when one or more family members are off in far-off places engaged in combat and possibly having nothing more to celebrate the holiday than dry rations or, today, MREs. How has the war affected these families and, in particular, those of our ancestors in the 1860s? That is the focus here.
When the "boys" marched away in the spring of 1861, many did not realize that they would not return for the holidays with family. It was expected that the war would last only about ninety days, making it a sure thing that they would all be reunited in plenty of time for the annual November feast (by this time a tradition in many families, though not made a national holiday until a few years later when Abraham Lincoln, following the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, proclaimed it such [Panati, p. 67]).
Prior to that time, however, Henry S. Washburn, in honor of Thanksgiving 1861, wrote a song - "Vacant Chair" - to remind the folks how much they did miss their own Johnny or Willie or Tommy who was not going to join them for the festivities at the end of the War's first calendar year. While the composition was directed towards the families in the North, this piece gained popularity in the South as well; after all, they had their empty chairs, too (Silber, p. 119). Originally, the author was listed only as "H.S.W.," but his identification was soon revealed: an 85-year-old poet from Worcester, Massachusetts (Erbsen, p. 64).
The song was published by the Chicago firm of Root and Cady and, while George F. Root did write a melody line for Washburn's poem, the lyrics were not his. Root never denied the claims that he was not the lyricist, but neither was he quick to correct those who attributed the entire piece to him. Even the sheet music form of the song lists only Root's name on the cover sheet; "H.S.W." is given credit for the words on the first page of music, but no other identification of the actual poet is clarified, and his identity took some time to unearth (Norris, p. 15; Crawford, pp. 117-118). Ironically, the one part of the piece that is accurately attributed to Root, has been changed over the years and many who sing the song today use an old gospel tune, used for the song "Life is Like a Mountain Railroad." Nevertheless, we owe Root a debt of gratitude for publishing the song to begin with and bringing it to the attention of the general public on both sides of the War (Silber, p. 119).
Back to how the song evolved: Washburn had been a guest at the Thanksgiving table in the Grout family home. The 18-year-old John William Grout, who had expected to be home on furlough to join his family for the feast, had experienced the worst of delays: a lieutenant in the Massachusetts 15th Regiment, Infantry, he had been involved in the heroic acts of saving some of his men at the Battle of Balls Bluff (Virginia). The unit was retreating, by orders of General McClellan, and the men were removing themselves across a river. Many of the soldiers were wounded and Grout was instrumental in getting them to safety, but not without the ultimate cost: he was shot by the enemy and died in the frigid waters on 21 October 1861 (Erbsen, p. 64).
That Thanksgiving setting on 21 November 1861 in the Grout home struck Washburn by the obviously absent lieutenant: his chair sat vacant to remind the family that there was one who would never return. The poet composed his piece soon after that event (Erbsen, p. 64). The rhyme was originally published in the Worcester Spy, and later set to an easily-forgettable melody. When Root acquired the lyrics, he re-worked the tune, bringing it to the attention to the public (Silber, p. 119) by publishing it later in 1862 (Crawford, p. 117). The song implies that the soldier's heroic battlefield death provides some consolation to the family (p. viii).
Let's examine the lyrics to see if you agree. The first verse clearly states that the family will continue to gather together, in spite of the absence of one of their own; but that the missing member will never be forgotten. The use of the "vacant chair" will be a constant reminder of his ethereal presence in the family, in spite of his physical absence. Their regular prayers for his peace by "caressing him" with their words will be a regular way of keeping him ever in their minds. The fact that a short year can bring about so large a change in their lives is a hard thing for the family to process: only the previous year he was with them with his bright eyes and positive attitude. The connection among the family members was as a "golden cord" that was severed with his death (Crawford, pp. 118-119). Interestingly, not every version prints the words the same way. In at least one other songbook, the reference in the first verse is to a "golden chord" that is then "severed" (Silverman, p. 77). This completely changes the meaning, of course, as a "chord" would likely refer to a musical element, not an item (a figurative "cord") that binds a family together. The original sheet music, however, clearly has the word "cord," which makes much more sense, at least to me.
The chorus begins with "We shall meet, but we shall miss him," which has been used as an alternate title for the song. Its second line repeats, "We shall linger to caress him, when we breathe our evening prayer" (Crawford, p. 120).
The second verse tells about the soldier's last moments. He is referred to as "Willie," which may have been what the Grout family called John William. This makes this song all the more personal for them and all the more real for anyone who recognizes that this is not about a generic "Willie," the term used for any "young soldier." This is about a specific young man who was "noble" and who "strove to bear our banner Thro' the thickest of the fight, And uphold our country's honor, In the strength of manhood's might" (Crawford, p. 119). Another moderate change has been made by modern transcriptionists of this piece: "might" has been changed to "night" (Silber, p. 139; Silverman, p. 78). This again alters the meaning. The original word implies a power of the young man, used up until the last; the revised version implies that the death of the soldier (his "manhood's night") was inevitable and imminent. Perhaps either one makes sense, depending on the singer's perspective; the latter would be more universal while the former more applicable to our specific soldier, Lt. Grout.
The third (the last) verse focuses on his final status: hero. The family is assured that their Willie will "go down" as a hero, with "wreaths of glory" decking "his brow." But, just as the families of today's fallen soldiers will tell us, that hero status does not remove the emptiness in the hearts and lives of the loved ones. He may sleep peacefully amid the dirges played at his funeral and at times of remembrance, but the family will forever cry at the memory of what they lost (Crawford, pp. 118-119). There is no doubt that this is a protest song, zeroing in on the apparent senseless deaths of the beloved family members, regardless of the heroism and patriotic duty the fallen soldier exhibited in his last moments of life.
Long after the War was over, "The Vacant Chair" remained in the lives of the soldiers themselves. Many of the funerals of those veterans, on both sides, also included the singing of this melancholy piece, reminding all that the chair would be forever vacant (Erbsen, p. 64). And the old soldiers on the North, at their Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) meetings, joined together in singing the song that no doubt reminded them of their many comrades who were no longer in their midst ( Old War Songs and G.A.R. and Patriotic Songs, p. 35). Did your ancestors have occasion to sing this song? Perhaps, especially if they had their own "Willies" in the War; ones who never returned to the tables. As you enjoy your holiday meals this year, think a moment about those whose homes are graced with vacant chairs and offer thoughts or prayers for the former occupants.
Crawford, Richard (Ed.). The Civil War Songbook: Complete Original Sheet Music for 37 Songs. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977.
Erbsen, Wayne. Rousing Songs and True Tales of the Civil War. Asheville, NC: Native Ground Music, Inc., 1999.
Norris, David A. Life During the Civil War. Toronto, ON, CA: Moorshead Magazines, Ltd., 2009.
Old War Songs and G.A.R. and Patriotic Songs (presented to the Grand Army of the Republic, Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 27th, 1889). Selections from Acme Haversack of Song and Patriotic Eloquence.
Panati, Charles. Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Perennial Library, 1989.
Silber, Irwin (Ed.). Songs of the Civil War. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.
Silverman, Jerry (Ed.). Civil War Songs and Ballads for Guitar. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.