Source: Sherman Publications

Civil War song written by Oxford man’s ancestor
‘The Vacant Chair’ to be performed at Celebrate Lone Ranger Aug. 3

by CJ Carnacchio

July 10, 2013

When folks gather round Aug. 3 to listen to the 5th Michigan Regiment Band perform at the Celebrate Lone Ranger festival in downtown Oxford, they’ll hear a song written by one of Don Steiner’s ancestors during the Civil War.

“I’m excited about that,” said the 88-year-old who’s lived in Oxford since 1968. “This might encourage some people to come to the concert.”

It’s called “The Vacant Chair” and it was originally written as a poem by Henry Stevenson Washburn to memorialize a dead Union Army lieutenant named John William “Willie” Grout.

Grout, a resident of Worcester, Massachusetts, died in October 1861 at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia. The battle was a rout for Union forces, which suffered 921 casualties out of 1,700 men. In comparison, the Confederates only suffered 155 casualties.

Washburn (1813-1903) was the great-great granduncle of Steiner on his mother’s side. He was an editor, manufacturer, legislator, president of an insurance company and a poet. During the Civil War, Washburn was in charge of clothing and hospital supplies for the Union army.

“He was quite an influential individual,” said Steiner, who owns a book of Washburn’s poetry published in 1895.

Grout, who served in the Massachusetts 15th Regiment, died helping escort wounded comrades safely across the Potomac River. He was shot during his crossing and slipped beneath the water. He was 18 years old.

The poem is an allegory that describes the anguish felt by Grout’s family when sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table a month later, facing Willie’s empty chair.

Washburn was a friend of the family.

“I think it’s exceptional,” said Steiner, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the European and Pacific theaters during World War II. “It’s a poem that has meaning nowadays, especially with a lot of our servicemen not coming home from the wars and their chairs being vacant at the dinner table.”

The poem was written in 1861 and turned into a popular song by George F. Root the following year.

In Ken Burns’ documentary film “The Civil War,” which originally aired on PBS in September 1990, country singer Kathy Mattea sang “The Vacant Chair.”

Steiner met Mattea in Florida. He and wife of nearly 40 years, Marge, were invited backstage, where they chatted with the star and she autographed a copy of sheet music for “The Vacant Chair.”

“It means a lot to me,” he said.