Last night I watched, for the first time (I'm embarrassed to admit) The Great Locomotive Chase. I have an early copy of the book on which the movie is based (written by William Pittenger, one of the participants of Andrews Raid); it's a true story of a group of Union soldiers stealing a Confederate locomotive and causing quite a disruption among the rebel troops that had to track down and retrieve the engine. After the Northerners were captured, they spent time in prison singing. Some of the old songs of the Civil War were performed (on both sides) by the actors in the film, but the one that struck me was "Tenting on the Old Campground." This song has lived long past the event of the War of the Rebellion. A friend of mine told me that, when she was a cub den leader, they sang a version of it (of course, they were speaking of a different type of campground; in the original song, the term "campground" refers to the areas where religious encampments would take place but had been turned into battlegrounds).
Years after the war, the song was reworked by James J. Clark for the reunion encampments of the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic - the Union vets who gathered to lend support to each other for decades after the Civil War was older). My great-grandfather, John Adam Hollander, was one of those veterans and his songbook that they used in the encampments is one of my prized possessions. Here are the words of that song as sung by the members of the Milwaukee GAR Robert Chivas Post #2:
We're tenting tonight in places secure, Our toils and dangers o'er;
We're singing the songs of long ago, Of days that come no more.
chorus) Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
Saddened though the strife long ceased;
Many are the hearts that are looking for the light
In Heaven's bright realms of peace.
Tenting tonight, tenting tonight, tenting on the old camp ground.
We're tenting tonight with no danger near, Our hearts beat glad and high;
And yet it brings a sadness now To think of days gone by. (chorus)
We're tenting tonight in joy and peace, Our comrades won this prize,
On freedom's alter offering up A costly sacrifice. (chorus)
We're tenting tonight, but the old camp ground, Deserted long and cold;
Like memory comes to us tonight, Mingling the new and old. (chorus)
We're tenting tonight on a new camp ground, The old one now is gone,
The new and the old we now entwine, In garland wreaths of song. (chorus)
Then here's to the old and the new camp ground, They both to us are dear,
Glad welcome to the new camp ground, The old one claims a tear. (chorus)
Let us drop a tear for the old camp ground, Where many heroes died;
Their deeds gave freedom to our land, Their names are sanctified. (chorus)
We're tenting tonight, may our campfires burn A strong and steady blaze;
While comrades make the welkin ring With songs of other days. (chorus)
If you wish to hear this version, I've recorded it on my CD "Songs of the War of the Rebellion." To read the original lyrics, check out this RootsWeb site. Ironically, the original song, written by Walter Kittredge, was published in 1864; the Great Locomotive Chase took place in 1862, so it was impossible for the prisoners to have known the song to sing it after their capture, but the drama of the song, sung by these men who were facing death, was a moving element of the movie. An MP3 of this song, performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, is also available on the web (you can even get it as a ring tone for your cell phone!).
When I think of these men, who gathered at the post for regular meetings, I get a sense that they were more than comrades - they were brothers. They had shared some of the worst things that anyone could imagine and the only people who really understood were their fellow GAR members.
One of my mother's favorite stories was the one of the Great Locomotive chase . . . if you've never read it or seen the movie, it's worth the time. These men were the first to receive the Medal of Honor.