I remember as a Cub Scout leader, hearing the boys singing of "tenting on the old camp ground" and thinking how appropriate a song it was for the youngsters to have a song about what they were doing (though most of our young boys were restricted to camping in back yards, not camp grounds; at least, not as a formal Scout activity). It wasn't until a few years later that I learned the edited version of the song I had heard from the boys was drastically different from the anti-war song originally penned by Walter Kittredge, following the receipt of his draft notice in 1863 (Silverman, Civil War Songs, p. 104). I had no idea before that that the "camp ground" spoken of referred to a place where religious encampments and revivals were held; I was thinking more of my favorite KOA!
I was in high school during the Viet Nam War and many of the people I hung out with also started singing anti-war songs when they received their draft notices, but Kittredge's circumstances were slightly different: it is alleged that he was inspired to write the haunting lyrics by the strong desire to see a swift and peaceful end to the war as well as giving his talent with words to the cause, especially since he was facing the possibility of giving his life to it as well (Silber, Songs of the Civil War, p. 167). But his circumstances were somewhat different from others in his situation: a former sufferer of rheumatic fever, Kittredge's childhood disease had a lasting impact on his entire life: he was deemed unfit for combat and so exempt from military service (Silverman, Civil War Songs, p. 104).
But the song was already written and so his new goal, since he was not headed to the battlefront, was to find a suitable publisher for his emotional expression of what he believed the soldiers were experiencing. It was 1864 and with the country as weary of war songs and poetry as it was of the war itself, finding a market for his masterpiece was not an easy task. "It's too depressing," he was told, by a Boston publisher. The people wanted more songs in the vein of Stephen Foster, not more reminders of how their loved ones were dying away from home, without even proper burials (Silverman, Songs and Stories, p. 54).
Before making the rounds of other publishers, Kittredge decided to approach his friends, the Hutchinsons (Asa Hutchinson was the patriarch of the singing groups that bore his name and Kittredge had once been part of one of the outspoken musical choruses) (Silber, Songs of the Civil War, p. 167). Even years before the first shots at Fort Sumter were fired, the Hutchinson Singers were outspoken Abolitionists. They spoke and sang of freeing slaves and bringing equality to the sexes (they invited women into their concerts at half price since they were paid only half the wages of men, and fugitive slaves were invited to attend for free and would even be paid $1.25 if they could prove their status) (p. 272). Here was a group that, if they would perform his song, would surely do it justice and probably create a market for it right there at the theater!
An anti-war song that promoted the virtual hopelessness of the conflict was just what Asa Hutchinson felt would present a clear and vivid message to his audiences; he was immediately won over by the song and its message and suggested it be unveiled at a concert series that was to take place near Lynn, Massachusetts. As expected, the audiences loved it! Had there been a photocopy machine available at the venue, Kittredge could probably have sold as many copies as the device would crank out. But those were unavailable luxuries in the 1860s and so the next step was to strike a deal for the promotion and sales of the product. The two artist/businessmen struck up a deal and each - performer and composer - would get half the profits of the sales and performances of the song. Both Asa Hutchinson and Walter Kittredge found "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" to be the most profitable single piece of work in their respective careers (Silber, Songs of the Civil War, p. 167).
Why was the song so popular? Much has to do with the marketing of the product. The Oliver Ditson Company of Boston had a unique method of promoting the music they printed and it was, for lack of a better term, "user friendly." Ditson sold sheet music for the piece that was designed for many different instrumentalists: the violinist had a score to use, the pianist had one, so did the zither player, banjo player, flutist, and more. Whatever one's chosen instrument, Ditson had a version to sell. It is interesting to note, however, that it was Hutchinson, not Kittredge, who interested the Ditson Company in the composition (Silverman, Songs and Stories, p. 56).
As has been mentioned in a previous article in this series, once a song became popular in the North, especially when it was in published (accessible) form, soon the South picked it up and proceeded to "make it their own." This happened with "Tenting," though the Northern version could just as easily have been sung, with no alterations, by the Confederate soldiers (it was the same story with no noted allegiance of one side over the other). The original four-verse song was stretched by another two verses. (Another common phenomenon when the South adopted a piece: they made it longer - better? - than its original Union version.) The Southern version just prolongs the sense of despair, but maybe there was more despair to focus upon. The chorus remained much the same, but while the Northerners were "Wishing for the war to cease," their Southern counterparts sang "Waiting for the war to cease." The next line of the chorus, in the North, states, "Many are the hearts that are looking for the right," as opposed to the Southerners' line, "Many are the eyes watching for the light." In both cases, the hearts and eyes were seeking "To see the dawn of peace" (Silber, Songs of the Civil War, p. 183). No matter the side, the desires were the same.
The last verse, in both versions (the lyricist of the Rebels' version is the famous "Anonymous"), changes the chorus. This is primarily because the verse reminds the listener that their purpose is not to camp and relax, but to prepare for battle: "We've been fighting today on the old camp ground . . ." (original version) leading to the chorus that, instead of "tenting tonight, tenting tonight . . ." it changes to "dying tonight, dying tonight, dying on the old camp ground" (Silber, Songs of the Civil War, p. 183). It spoke of the realities for the soldiers and may be one reason that the song remained a favorite among the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) members who met and communed with each other long after the War was over. In fact, the song knew a resurgence during the Viet Nam era among the anti-war protestors (McNeil & McNeil, p. 98).
The original sheet music for the song bore the composer's name, but even larger, and in bolder letters, were the words "adapted & sung by the HUTCHINSON FAMILY" (Crawford, p. 58). Later versions left off any mention of the original performers (Silverman, Songs and Stories, p. 55). A version by J. W. Turner, in opposition to the depressing nature of the original composition, was upbeat, making the camping sound more like a "campout" than a possible last gathering of the unit before the seemingly endless fighting. Turner's words, "Our hearts are light and joyous ever; We think of home, we talk of friends, And happy times we've had together," were unbelievable, even to those who had not spent time on a battlefield; the song never caught on (Silber, Songs of the Civil War, pp. 167-168).
Another rendition was introduced especially for the GAR, written by James J. Clark; it is eight verses long (twice the length of the original). The chorus is a reminder of what has happened and that the trials and losses of the War remain fresh in their minds: "Many are the hearts that are weary to-night, Saddened through [sic. - supposed to be 'though'] the strife long ceased; Many are the hearts looking for the light In Heaven's bright realms of peace. Tenting to-night . . ." But the verses speak of being able to live without fear and to go to sleep without concern that the next day could begin with gunfire. They also mention that the purposes of the War were valid and that the heroes that gave their lives did so for a "prize" of peace, home, and family (Old War Songs, p. 9).
For full versions of the song, both Northern and Southern approaches, check on line by putting the title into your preferred search engine. If your family was in America in the 1860s, regardless of whether they were on the Union or Confederate side, the chances are some of them listened to, or even sang, this song. And if you have Boy Scouts in your family that start singing about "camping on the old camp ground," let them hear, or at least read, the original version of the song.
Crawford, Richard (Ed.). The Civil War Songbook. New York: Dover Publications, 1977.
Old War Songs and G.A.R. and Patriotic Songs (presented to the Grand Army of the Republic, Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 27th, 1889). Selections from Acme Haversack of Song and Patriotic Eloquence.
McNeil, Keith and McNeil, Rusty. Civil War Songbook with Historical Commentary. Riverside, CA: WEM Records, 1999.
Silber, Irwin (Ed.). Broadside, Vol. III. New York: Oak Publications, 1970.
Silber, Irwin (Ed.). Songs of the Civil War. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.
Silverman, Jerry (Ed.). Civil War Songs and Ballads for Guitar. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.
Silverman, Jerry (Ed.). Songs and Stories of the Civil War. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.