The beloved Civil War song “Tenting Tonight” captured the war-weariness of the homesick soldier, but it was written by a draftee who never fought.
Walter Kittredge was a 29-year-old concert singer with the famous Hutchinson Family Singers when he got his draft notice in 1863.
The Hutchinson Family Singers were the most popular American entertainers in the 1840s. They toured New England singing, in four-part harmony, native folk tunes, patriotic anthems and political songs promoting workers’ rights, women’s rights, abolition and temperance. They were still in demand when Kittredge joined them in 1855. During the Civil War they sang at at mass outdoor meetings promoting the Union cause.
Kittredge was keenly disturbed about getting drafted. The night before he was to report for the draft, a haunting melody ran through his head. So did the words “tenting on the old campground.”
He wrote the entire song and the lyrics that night at his home in Merrimack, N.H.
Kittredge never had to fight in the Civil War; he was rejected by the surgeons at the draft board because he’d had rheumatic fever as a child. The Hutchinsons learned “Tenting Tonight” and sang it at Old High Rock in Lynn, Mass. Their audience loved it. The next year a New York song firm published the song as sheet music; within three months more than 10,000 copies were sold, a huge hit for the time. The song captured the public’s changing taste for music. Strident tunes like “Battle Hymn of the Republic” were giving way to songs of sorrow and loss.
Soldiers on both the North and the South sang “Tenting Tonight” at Civil War encampments. Fifty years after the war ended, “Tenting Tonight” was sung by tearful veterans gathered for reunions. It was sung at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 and the Great Soldiers' Reunion in Washington in 1892. Roy Rogers sang it in the 1938 film “Come on Rangers.” Modernist composer Charles Ives quoted the song in his own work “They Are There,” a popular song during both world wars. It is performed to this day.
“Tenting Tonight” has been called one of the nation’s first protest songs for its antiwar sentiment:
We're tenting tonight on the old campground,
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.
Walter Kittredge was born on October 8, 1834 in Reed’s Ferry (now Merrimack), N.H.
You can hear the song here.