He was a former schoolteacher who chose to fight, even though he knew that his own cousin might face him on the other side of the battlefield. He thought this war would be of short duration and that the Union would be victorious. And so, as the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry marched forward in battle at Balls Bluff, John William Grout had no thought of becoming a hero or even being remembered should he fall.
One year after his death at Balls Bluff, his familys anguish was immortalized in a song by George F. Root and Henry Washburn, The Vacant Chair. The song soon became popular among Northern and Southern soldiers, and the sheet music was a favorite seller throughout the Civil War. A vacant chair sitting in the corner during family gatherings became a silent symbol for the loss of a loved one.
After the war, many families and former soldiers remembered the tradition of the empty chair. That led the FreeMasons to develop a ceremony based on the song and its tradition. Lodges began to hold a Vacant Chair ceremony on Veterans Day or Memorial Day in recognition of those veterans and servicemen who served their country or made the supreme sacrifice and did not return to their homes.
During World War I, the tradition of the vacant chair, and the song, again claimed popularity. A vacant chair draped with the American flag became a very common sight across America, and was again a silent reminder that the family had lost a loved one to the ravages of war.
As a child, I would often visit my uncles house in Jonesboro, Ga. Always there was an empty chair in the corner of the dining room with a small flag hanging over the back. More than once I attempted to drag this empty chair to the table only to receive a quick Stop! from my aunt. She would then explain that the chair couldnt be moved because it "belonged to Ervin." Years later I learned Ervin was my older cousin who had died on a Pacific island during World War II.
There are a lot of empty chairs around America this year. Families in every state sat down for Christmas dinner and realized a family member was missing: 3,000 victims of the World Trade Center; the fatalities of the Pentagon explosion; the brave passengers of the plane who went to their deaths rather than let the terrorists fulfill their mission; the victims of Anthrax; the fallen soldiers of the Afghanistan war.
It occurred to me as I pushed through the crowds at Augusta Mall that those fallen heroes will not experience the discomfort of fighting Christmas crowds. Because of some perverted and twisted religious faction, they will never be home for Christmas again.
I try to keep that in mind as my family celebrates. I remember Ervin Jones and John William Grout. I remember the lonely vigil of the guys in the muddy trenches of France singing Silent Night. I recall the vision of my own Dad crouching in the snow of Germany while Bing Crosbys voice on the radio sang Ill Be Home for Christmas. I think of my friends who struggled with Christmas in the jungles of Vietnam and never quite recaptured the America they had left. I think of all the innocents who met their death Sept. 11, and as I watch my innocent daughter open Christmas presents, I wonder if any of them had daughters her age.
It sits in a corner near the fireplace so that all who enter see it. It is a simple, wooden-frame chair with an American flag draped across its back. It symbolizes the thousands of Americans who are not with us, but it also symbolizes the indestructible spirit of the American people.
Ive placed my Vacant Chair in the parlor this year, and hope that others will do the same.
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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