In the final years of the Civil War, one song became popular in both the North and the South: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” The song, composed by Boston’s beloved bandleader Patrick S. Gilmore, was a rousing march that anticipated the celebration at the end of the war. Gilmore premiered “When Johnny Comes Marching” at a Boston concert on September 26, 1863. Still well known today, the song remains deeply evocative of the period.
Gilmore became a bandleader in an era when brass and military bands were an extremely popular form of entertainment. By the time of his death, he was known as “the Father of the American Band” or “America’s First Superstar” both for his fame and his creative ideas about instrumentation and performance. Gilmore had come to Boston from Ireland at the age of 19 and began working at the Ordway’s Music Store. His bandleading days started when he organized “Ordway’s Minstrels” and he went on to lead the Charlestown Town Band and the Suffolk Brass Band. By the end of the 1850s Gilmore was leading the Boston Brigade Band, which became known simply as “Patrick Gilmore’s Band.” During his tenure with the Boston band, he established the Fourth of July concerts on the Boston Common that continue today.
When the Civil War started, Gilmore enlisted and quickly found ways to use his talents in support of the Union Army. He attached his band to the 24th Mass Regiment and they played music for the troops and served as stretcher bearers. Governor Andrew also put Gilmore in charge of training military bands, and he trained and equipped a total of 20.
Gilmore was not widely known as a composer, but he penned several popular songs of the age, including a version of “We are Coming Father Abraham,” and such titles as “The Everlasting Polka,” “Music Fills My Soul With Sadness” and “Good News from Home.” He is also occasionally credited for composing “John Brown’s Body,” a very popular marching song during the war and the precursor to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The truth is that Gilmore did not compose the song; he heard a version of “John Brown’s Body” sung by troops at Fort Warren and transcribed the music so that his band and others could play it.
Gilmore composed “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” after the battle of Gettysburg, inspired by “the ragged soldiers returning home from the front, on foot, by ambulance, or in coffins,” according to writer Michael P. Quinlin. In writing it, Gilmore was influenced by a much older war song “Johnnie I Hardly Knew Ye.” This song had been popular among Irish soldiers fighting for the British in Ceylon and it was a deeply bitter anti-war song:
“But sad it is to see you so, Hurroo! hurroo!
But sad it is to see you so, Hurroo! hurroo!
But sad it is to see you so
And to think of you now as an object of woe
Your Peggy’ll still keep you on as her beau
Och, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!
With drums and guns, and guns and drums
The enemy nearly slew ye
My darling dear, you look so queer
Och, Johnny, I hardly knew ye
Gilmore’s song is much more upbeat and hopeful:
When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah, Hurrah
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah, Hurrah
The men will cheer, the boys will shout
The ladies, they will all turn out
And we’ll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home
Gilmore debuted the song at a concert at Tremont Temple in Boston on September 26, 1863 and it became widely popular. According to Quinlin, its appeal was its neutrality and its optimism: “The lyrics are non-specific, so Northerners and Southerners—and subsequent listeners—related to the song equally. And the song has a neutral political tone, offering a universal shred of hope and celebration, not for victory, but simply for safety and survival.”
Gilmore’s contributions to American music continued through the war and nearly to the end of the century. In 1864 he was appointed bandmaster in the Gulf, and President Lincoln commissioned him to create a celebration concert in New Orleans. This experience later inspired him to organize two enormous multi-day peace concerts with thousands of instrumentalists and vocalists: the National Peace Jubilee in 1869 and the World Peace Jubilee in 1872. He eventually moved to New York City and spent the final decades of his life touring North American and Europe with his band. During his New York years, he created Gilmore’s Concert Garden, which became the first Madison Square Garden. He also started the New Years Eve tradition of celebrating in Times Square. Although Gilmore died in 1892, he had a glimpse of the future of music before the end of his life, making recordings with Thomas Edison in 1891.
While the appeal of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” faded with the end of the Civil War, but it was revived again during the Spanish-American War and both World Wars and it has never disappear from popular music. In the past 150 years, Gilmore’s song has been performed by many bands and orchestras and recorded by performers ranging from jazz musicians to punk bands. It even spawned the children’s song “The Ants Go Marching” which continues to pass to each new generation.
“Civil War Music: ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’”. Civil War Trust. http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/on-the-homefront/culture/music/when-johnny-comes-marching-home-again/when-johnny-comes-marching.html
“Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye”. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Ready-Reference/JFK-Miscellaneous-Information/Johnny-I-Hardly-Knew-Ye.aspx
McWhirter, Christian. Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
“Patrick Gilmore Collection”. University of Maryland Archives. http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/1214
“Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, 1829-1892: Father of the American Concert Band”. Boston College University Libraries. http://www.bc.edu/libraries/about/exhibits/burns/gilmore.html
Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore Society http://www.psgilmore-society.org/
“Patrick S. Gilmore Biography”. Songwriters Hall of Fame. http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/index.php/exhibits/bio/C199
Quinlin, Michael P. Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston's Colorful Irish Past. Guilford, CT: The Glove Pequot Press, 2004.
Quinlin, Michael P. “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”. Boston Irish Tourism Association. http://www.irishmassachusetts.com/profile_Gilmore.php