Tenting on the Old Camp Ground

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Coming home from where I go Sunday mornings, I listen to a replay of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” Yesterday he sang the Civil War song “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground,” by Walter Kittredge.  I sang along and, for the first time, I listened to the words I was singing. You can listen to it here.

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 that are 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 “Goodbye!”

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.

Many are the heart that are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts that are looking for the right
To see the dawn of peace

Dying tonight, dying tonight, dying on the old camp ground.

When I was in elementary school, in Philadelphia, first there were three Civil War veterans at our Memorial Day assembly, then two, then one.  They were probably around the age I am now, but we looked at them with awe. We had to memorize and sing “Tenting,” and to honor them. I could never understand why they wiped tears from their eyes when we sang it. I thought men didn’t cry, and that they’d enjoy our bringing up old memories of glory. I didn’t understand until yesterday, when I actually listened to the words I was singing.

Back then we weren’t a bloodthirsty country, not even during World War II when my classmates and I were serenading the veterans. We fought the Germans and the Japanese, but we weren’t happy about it.

Today we are the world’s most warlike nation. Everyone fears us, few admire us. War is our most important export. We sell guns and worse. We hire mercenary soldiers to fight our wars. Two and a half million people have “security” clearance; we thumb our collective noses at the saying “Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.”

War is an intoxicant, an addictive activity. At its most destructive it’s been reduced to the level of a video game, in which men in easy chairs sit in rooms in New Mexico, using joysticks to fire missiles at the residences of foreigners we don’t like.

How do you get a president to say, “Let’s make peace. I don’t want all this fearsome power.”? How do you get him to stand up to all the military officers who love their uniforms, their power to command, their paychecks? How do you get him to stand up to the corporations that give him the money he needs to hang on to his power? How do you get someone who loves peace above all to stand up and offer to be this warring nation’s leader? How long do you think a candidate like that would survive, threatening to deprive all these rich and powerful people of their riches and power?

There is no one in the American government who speaks for me. No one. I’m tired of war and see no end to it.

I used to be glad to be an American. Not proud, because it wasn’t by any doing of mine that I was born here. You have a right to be proud when you accomplish something, but not for your good luck. I was glad for that luck.

Now that gladness has turned to ashes in my mouth. The terrorists have won.

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One Response to “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground”

  1. Thank you, Miryam.

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