Originally published in the Arlington Connection on Nov. 27, 2013.
A century and a half ago, with the Civil War mere months old, a young officer’s body was pulled from the Potomac River and quickly buried with several others on the Virginia shore near the Chain Bridge. Once identified, the remains were added to the family plot in New England. A soldier’s death, a disfigured corpse recovered, a tale to be repeated thousands of time in the coming few years.
This event would differ because a poet was moved to write from the heart and a composer was intrigued by the words published anonymously. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was another in the series of losses by the Federals in the months following the debacle of First Manassas.
Marked today by one of the smallest national cemeteries, the site sits atop a cliff rising 150 feet over the Potomac River, two miles northeast of Leesburg. Its importance is less military than political: The defeat led to the first of Congressional investigations that would second-guess President Lincoln for the rest of the war.
BEGUN AS A RECONNAISSANCE on Oct. 21, 1861, opposing commanders introduced units piecemeal through the day. As dusk approached, the Federals were perched on level ground with their backs to the precipice at the river and with Confederates facing them from yet higher ground. Discarding weapons and equipment to trip down the hill, those fleeing merged with comrades arriving from the Maryland shore. It ended with a Confederate “fish in the barrel” fusillade upon the mass of blue uniforms in the water and on the flood plain at the shore. Bodies shot or drowned clotted the stream.
At first hidden in the watery depths, natural decomposition would raise may corpses downstream in the coming weeks. Add to that an especially heavy storm which hit the entire mid-Atlantic area the last week in October causing flooding, as well as damage to structures like the Long Bridge.
People on both sides of the river were horrified when no less than three dozen bodies were found afloat and ashore. John William Grout was one of them. The 18 year old was familiarly known as “Willie” in his hometown, Worcester. As a second lieutenant in Company D of the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, he stood in the thick of the fight the whole day. Driven into the water and shot in the back of the head, he submerged. An obituary mentioned the unsuccessful journey of the young man’s father to find the body, and then said, “Let us hope, however, that the Potomac ... will yet yield up the youthful dead.” It did and he was buried at home. Thanksgiving Day 1861 was only days away.
ON THAT HOLIDAY, whether planned or by habit, the family table was set as usual. The chair at Willie’s place was empty. Poet Henry S. Washburn was an invited guest; his son and Willie had been friends. Struck by the sadness pervading the event, Washburn saw in it the scene that would be repeated countless times in the course of the war; indeed, in all wars. He wrote “The Vacant Chair.”
In time, Washburn’s friend and fellow Massachusetts native George F. Root provided the tune. As the next year’s Thanksgiving Day approached, words and music were published by Root in Chicago and met with popular acclaim. The subtitle was “We Shall Meet But We Shall Miss Him (Thanksgiving, 1861).”
“The Vacant Chair” was published and performed on both sides of the battle lines throughout the Civil War. No color of uniform could hide the universal sense of loss captured by the words and carried by the music. Nor did the story end there. The piece, known near-and-far, was revived in later wars, especially the Spanish-American War and World War I. Concert performances were frequent during the former.
The advent of recorded music before the latter spread its fame farther as tune and message attracted the most famous performers. Musical tastes changed greatly in the years preceding World War II and interest in “The Vacant Chair” waned. Today, like the battle that prompted it, the song is all but forgotten.
THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS has created a free-access, online library of recorded songs that have played a significant role in our cultural history. Several versions of “The Vacant Chair” are included for that reason. Taking a few minutes to listen would be an appropriate way for any holiday gathering to recall, with thanks, the sacrifice of the many “Willies” and the enduring sadness of their families.