From Thanksgiving 1861-Today: “The Vacant Chair”

Recently, to honor our Veterans, we shared the commercial entitled “The Empty Chair.”
I mentioned that there was a famous song from the Civil War which had the same name, and I would try to find the words for you. The classic Civil War poem and song was actually called “The Vacant Chair.” Here’s some information about the poem, and the song, which would eventually follow.

“The Vacant Chair” is a sentimental favorite from the Civil War, and it became not just popular, but immensely popular in both the North and the South, although there were different lyrics used by Union and Confederate troops. The message continues to be universal, focusing on the terrible losses of war at the most private and intimate level-the family gathered around the dinner table. In this particular case, the family was gathered around the Thanksgiving table, in November, 1861 … included at the table was a “vacant chair.”

“The Vacant Chair” was written to commemorate the death of John William Grout (1843–1861), a Union soldier from Worcester, Massachusetts, and an 1859 graduate of Phillips Academy in Andover. Mr. Grout, known as “Willie,” was a very popular local son, who served with the Union’s 15th Massachusetts as a Second Lieutenant, and was killed at age eighteen at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, in October, 1861. Lt. Grout’s body was recovered from the Potomac River on November 5, 1861, after being washed 35 miles back to Washington, D.C. His remains were identified by the name written on his clothing. “The Battle of Ball’s Bluff” was a devastating battle for the families of the Worcester area. There were almost 500 killed, wounded or captured from the 15th Massachusetts regiment.

“The Vacant Chair” was written by Henry S. Washburn. Mr. Washburn was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on June 10, 1813, He spent his boyhood at Kingston, Massachusetts, and was educated at Worcester and Brown University. Later, he was a manufacturer at Worcester and Boston. Beginning in 1875, he was the President of the Union Mutual Life Insurance Co.,
and was very active in public affairs, where he held many prominent posts. He also wrote many hymns and songs, perhaps the most known hymn being “Let Every Heart Rejoice and Sing,” which was considered a “National Hymn.”

The melody for the poem “The Vacant Chair” was written in 1862 by George F. Root (1820-1895), who was a famous composer, and also known for other Civil War songs such as “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Just Before the Battle Mother,” and Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!”

Here now are the words to “The Vacant Chair.” Please keep in mind that many of the words were changed over the years, but this is as close to the original as I could find. The poem first appeared in the Worcester Spy around Thanksgiving 1861:

The Vacant Chair
We shall meet but we shall miss him.
There will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him,
While we breathe our ev’ning prayer.
When a year ago we gathered,
Joy was in his mild blue eye.
But a golden cord is severed.
And our hopes in ruin lie.

We shall meet, but we shall miss him.
There will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him,
While we breathe our ev’ning prayer.

At our fireside, sad and lonely,
Often will the bosom swell,
At remembrance of the story,
How our noble Willie fell.
How he strove to bear our banner,
Thro’ the thickest of the fight,
And uphold our country’s honor
In the strength of manhood’s might.

True they tell us wreaths of glory,
Evermore will deck his brow,
But this soothes the anguish only,
Sweeping o’er our heartstrings now.
Sleep today o’ early fallen,
In thy green and narrow bed.
Dirges from the pine and cypress
Mingle with the tears we shed.
Henry S. Washburn

I found this from the Massachusetts Historical Society:
Mass Historical Society-Words to The Vacant ChairI wanted to include a video of the song being performed, as well.
There were many I found, some dating back to the early 1900’s.
However, I’ve shared this one, from more recent time, featuring Kathy Mattea.
Please enjoy … and think about … “The Vacant Chair”



In the early part of the Civil War, one dark Saturday morning in the middle of winter, a young woman, 22 years old, died at the Commercial Hospital, in Cincinnati, Ohio. This young woman had once been beautiful, and the pride and joy of highly regarded parents. She was highly educated and accomplished, and she would have been a shining star in the best of society. But, she was stubborn and willful, and would not listen to warning. She played with fire, and called it “fun.” One day, she awoke to find herself ruined by a fatal mistake which she could not erase. She was fallen.

She spent the rest of her young life in disgrace and shame, and died poor and friendless, a broken-hearted outcast. Among her personal belongings, was found the hand written poem, “Beautiful Snow.” The poem was immediately taken to Mr. Enos B. Reed, who was editor of the newspaper, “The National Union.” On the Sunday morning following the young woman’s death, the poem appeared in print for the first time, within the columns of that newspaper. One of the readers of that newspaper was Thomas Buchanan Reed, who was one of the first nationally recognized American poets. Mr. Reed was so stirred by the anguish, despair, and tragedy of the poem, that he sought out where the young ladies’ remains were taken, and he accompanied the body to its final resting place.  

“Beautiful Snow”

Oh! The snow, the beautiful snow,
Filling the sky and earth below,
Over the housetops, over the street,
Over the heads of the people you meet.
Dancing-Flirting-Skimming along,
Beautiful snow, it can do no wrong.
Clinging to lips in frolicsome freak,
Trying to kiss a fair lady’s cheek,
Beautiful snow from heaven above,
Pure as an angel, gentle as love.

Oh! The snow, the beautiful snow,
How the flakes gather and laugh as they go,
Whirling about in maddening fun,
Cheering the heart and dispelling the gloom.
Chasing-Laughing-Hurrying by,
It lightens the face and sparkles the eye.
And the dogs with a bark and a bound,
Snap at the crystals as they eddy around;
The town is alive and its heart in a glow,
To welcome the coming of beautiful snow!

How wild the crowd goes swaying along,
Hailing each other with humor and song,
How gay the sleighs, like meteors flash by,
Bright for a moment, then lost to the eye;
Ringing-Swinging-Dashing they go,
Over the crest of the beautiful snow,
Snow so pure when it falls from the sky,
As to make one regret to see it lie,
To be trampled and tracted by thousands of feet,
‘Till it blends with the horrible filth of the street,

Once I was pure as the snow, but I fell,
Fell like the snowflakes from heaven to hell:
Fell to be trampled as filth of the street,
Fell to be scoffed at, to be spit on and beat.
Pleading-Cursing-Dreading to die,
Selling my soul to whoever would buy,
Dealing in shame for a morsel of bread,
Hating the living and fearing the dead.
Merciful God! Have I fallen so low?
And yet I was once like the beautiful snow,

Once I was fair as the beautiful snow,
With an eye like a crystal, a heart like its glow,
Once I was loved for my innocent grace,
Flattered and sought for the charms of my face,
God and myself I have lost by my fall.
The vilest wretch that goes shivering by,
Will make a wide sweep lest I wander too nigh;

For all that is on or above me, I know,
There is nothing so pure as the beautiful snow.

How strange it should be that this beautiful snow,
Should fall on a sinner with nowhere to go!
How strange it should be when the night comes again;
If the snow and the ice struck my desperate brain.
Fainting-Freezing-Dying alone,
Too wicked for prayer, too weak for a moan,
To be heard in the streets of the crazy town,
Gone mad in the joy of the snow coming down!
To be and to die in my terrible woe,
With a bed and a shroud of the beautiful snow.

Helpless and foul as the trampled snow,
Sinner, despair not, Christ stoopeth low,
To rescue the soul that is lost in sin,
And raise it to life and enjoyment again.
Groaning-Bleeding-Dying for thee,
The Crucified hung on the cursed tree,
His accents of mercy fall soft on thine ear,
“Is there mercy for me? Will He heed my weak prayer?”
O God!  in the stream that for sinners did flow,
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Story and poem taken from:
Independence, MO