Tenting on the Old Campground

By 1863, dozens of major battles and hundreds of smaller actions had claimed the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers. Regiments in the Civil War were often made up of men from small geographic areas, so that many men had friends, neighbors, and relatives serving with them.  A small town might lose dozens of its young men in a single battle.  If a family  had not lost a loved one themselves in the war, they knew someone (and often several someones) who had lost a husband, father, brother, or friend. The upbeat patriotic music of 1861 was replaced by sadder, more sentimental songs as the reality of the terrible cost of the Civil War set in.

One of these songs was Tenting on the Old Campground, written by New Hampshire composer and musician Walter Kittredge. Kittredge was drafted, and though ultimately he did not serve in the army,  he captured the feelings of the veteran soldiers who had lost so many of their comrades  in the seemingly never ending war, men who wanted it to end so they could go home. 

The song became very popular with both civilians and soldiers on both sides, and thousands of copies of the sheet music were sold. It remained popular after the war and was often sung at soldier reunions and at Memorial Day (originally, Decoration Day) events. It’s still appropriate for Memorial Day today as the lyrics express the feelings of soldiers who have fought in any war. Here’s a nice version of the song as performed by the 97th Regimental String Band.

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.
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.

We’ve been tenting tonight on the old camp-ground,
Thinking of days gone by,
Of the loved ones at home that gave us the hand,
And the tear that said, “Good-bye!”

We are tired of war on the old camp ground,
Many are dead and gone,
Of the brave and true who’ve left their homes,
Others been wounded long.

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.
Final 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

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