Looking Back with Aurore Eaton -- Walter Kittredge's legacy: 'Tenting on the Old Camp Ground'

In 1855 21-year-old Walter Kittredge — singer, instrumentalist, songwriter and elocutionist — left his family’s farm in the Reeds Ferry section of Merrimack, New Hampshire, embarking on an adventure that would define his life. After this initial solo concert tour of New England towns, he began his long professional association with the Hutchinson Family Singers, originally of Milford, New Hampshire.

In 1860 Walter married Ann “Annie” E. Fairfield of New Boston, New Hampshire, when they were both 26 years old. After the Civil War broke out in April 1861 Walter, an avowed abolitionist, attempted to enlist in the Union army. He was rejected as he had recently suffered a bout of rheumatic fever. In the fall of 1863, while on his way home after visiting his friends the Hutchinsons at their family compound in Lynn, Massachusetts, Walter met an acquaintance who informed him that he had been drafted. No longer starry-eyed about the war as he had been in 1861, Walter dreaded the thought of leaving his wife and baby daughter Clara to join the conflict.

As Walter later recounted, “I went home, did my work, and after dinner sat down near the window with a violin in my hands…my thoughts wandered away to the south, to the camps at evening time, to the soldiers gathered there, and of my own future among them. Almost unconsciously my thoughts began to express themselves in words and music simultaneously, and I drew the bow across the strings…The sentiment was probably more the expression of my own feeling of loneliness and regret at parting from home than anything else, but I could see as if it were a real picture the events and feelings expressed in the song at that moment. The melody and words came together. I wrote the words out that night and the music the following day.”

He named the song, “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground,” and anchored his hymn-like melody with solemn words, including this chorus: “Many of 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.”

After again being rejected for service due to poor health, Walter took “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” to the Hutchinsons, who were moved by its universal emotions of yearning and loss. They soon incorporated the song in their concert programs and Asa Hutchinson, a family leader, partnered with Walter to have the music arranged and transcribed as sheet music. “Tenting” was published in Boston in 1864, and within three months 10,000 copies were sold, and hundreds of thousands of copies more would be sold during the course of the war. The song was frequently sung in both military camps and homes on both sides of the conflict.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Walter toured for a time with his singing partner, Joshua Hutchinson, and then he went off on his own. He sang his most popular original tunes, including “When They Come Marching Home,” “I’m a Child of the Mountain,” and “Scatter the Flowers over the Blue and Gray,” but the one piece that remained a constant favorite was “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground.” For decades, Walter received a steady stream of fan letters from people who had been touched by the song.

For several decades, “Tenting” was regularly performed at encampments of the Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), and its counterpart the United Confederate Veterans. After attending the GAR encampment in Washington, D.C., in September 1892, Walter retired. A beloved figure in Merrimack, Walter was active in church and town affairs. He and Annie (1834-1921) had three children, Clara S., (1863-1940), Walter E. (1866-1935), and Annie (1870-1872). Walter died on July 8, 1905, at the age of 70 at his farmhouse, which he had built not far from the original Kittredge homestead in Reeds Ferry. In an 1899 interview, he had said, in his typical humble way, “People sometimes tell me that I have done something with my songs. I can only say that I am glad if I have done so.”

Next week: New Hampshire’s Civil War-era bands.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter.