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"Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground":

A Civil War Song of Sorrow

by Francis Towers

 

 

One of the most poignant songs from the Civil War was actually written against the killing. It is a fervent anti-war song, with words and music by Walter Kittredge.

 

Walter Kittredge was born in Merrimack, New Hampshire in 1834 and died there in 1905. He wrote over 500 songs during his lifetime but only "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" has remained popular.

For many years Kittredge supported the abolitionist movement and later spoke in favor of the Temperance movement.

In his excellent book, SONGS OF THE CIVIL WAR, Irving Silber wrote this about the song:

Kittredge, at one time a member of one of the many Hutchinson Family singing groups, then brought his song to the Hutchinsons. The famous singers were enthusiastic about it and decided to introduce it in a series of concerts which they were presenting at High Rock, near Lynn, Massachusetts. The song's success was instantaneous and Asa Hutchinson immediately interested the Oliver Ditson Company in Boston in publishing it. (Kittredge and Hutchinson worked out a 50 percent split of royalties and, according to one Hutchinson biographer, Asa netted more income from "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" than from any other song in the long career of the singing Hutchinson.[1]

Then Silber adds this telling statement:

Civilian and solder alike responded to Kittredge's song and, as the war continued and the casualty lists lengthened, it gained in mass appeal as a popular expression of the yearning for peace. The song retained its hold on the public for many years after the war and became one of the most popular songs of reminiscence at GAR reunions.[2]

Richard Jackson wrote this explanation about how the song was written and remained popular:

Walter Kittredge (born in 1834 in New Hampshire) composed the song on his violin apparently during the evening before he was to be drafted into the Union Army in 1863. He was rejected, however, because of a recent bout with rheumatic fever, but the song inspired by the impending induction did go to the front and became a melancholy favorite with troops on both sides as the war dragged on to its last day.Ditson published the song in 1864 as arranged by M.F.H. Smith, and it was his idea to use the Reveille bugle call, unaccompanied, and a four measure variation on it to introduce the song, he was indeed a clever and sensitive arranger. The sentiments expressed in "Tenting" were sufficiently universal to keep it in currency years beyond the specific events that inspired it. During the 1960s it was used as a protest song by Pete Seeger and others who opposed the war in Viet Nam and it was published, without a word of the original changed in Songs for Peace (1960), compiled by the Student Peace Union.[3]

Here is the first verse of the song:

We're tenting tonight on the old Camp ground,
Give us a song to cheer
Our weary hearts, a song of home
And friends we love so dear.

Chorus:
Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts looking for the right
To see the dawn of peace.
Tenting tonight,
Tenting tonight,
Tenting on the old Camp ground.

And the very somber fourth verse:

We've been fighting today on the old Camp ground,
Many are lying near;
Some are dead and some are dying,
Many are in tears.

Chorus:
Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts looking for the right
To see the dawn of peace.
Dying tonight,
Dying tonight.
Dying on the old Camp ground.

As musicologist, Richard Crawford, wrote in the Intoduction to THE CIVIL WAR SONGBOOK:

"Kittredge's elegiac "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" and Hewitt's ironic and lovely "All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight"...are still capable of touching a responsive chord." [4]

The song still has relevance today for those who wish an end to war and who wish "to see the dawn of peace."

 

 

Footnotes

[1] SONGS OF THE CIVIL WAR, p 167.

[2] Ibid

[3] POPULAR SONGS OF THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY, p 282

[4] THE CIVIL WAR SONGBOOK, p vii

 

Sources

THE CIVIL WAR SONGBOOK, Selected and with an Introduction by Richard Crawford, Dover Publications, 1977.

POPULAR SONGS OF THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY, Selected with an Introduction and Commentary by Richard Jackson, Dover Publications, 1976.

SONGS OF THE CIVIL WAR, Compiled and Edited Irwin Silber,
Dover Publications, 1995 (originally published in 1960).

 

See music videos of "Tenting Tonight" on YouTube -- CLICK HERE

 

 


To order this recommended recording -- CLICK HERE

 

 

 

 

Two multimedia discs with additional information...

 

"GLORY, HALLEUJAH" -
Songs and Hymns of the Civil War Era

 

 

"Lincoln and Liberty" -
Music From Abraham Lincoln's Era

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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