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The Story of When Johnny Comes Marching Home

Duane Shinn

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Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore wrote a song during the Civil War that continues to march its way through the years. This song, a yearning for loved ones to return safely from war, is “When Johnny Comes Marching Home". Today this song endures, and it is part of many players’ piano repertoires of American Classics.

Gilmore was a Union Army Bandmaster and an excellent soloist on the cornet. He came to the United States in 1849 from Ireland, arriving in Boston. In 1861, his own ‘Patrick Gilmore's Band’ enlisted in the Union Army. They were part of the 24th Massachusetts Infantry.

As the cruelties of war would have it, this band of musicians had dual roles. They performed as stretcher-bearers during the Civil War in places like Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, and others.

Not too many years later, Gilmore promoted peace after seeing so much war - with his Peace Jubilees. One, called the National Peace Jubilee (1869), consisted of over 1,000 instrumentalists and 10,000 singers.

Another, called the World Peace Jubilee (1872) consisted of 2,000 instrumentalists and 20,000 singers. These were impressive stagings on par with today's modern musical and entertainment extravaganzas.

In fact, the 1872 World event had none other than Johann Strauss with orchestra as featured performers. Of course, this was at a cost of $100,000 and it was Strauss's only visit to the United States.

Still inspired by his hope for peace and for soldiers to come home from war to a life they once knew, Gilmore wrote When Johnny Comes Marching Home in 1863 in New Orleans. At the time, he was Grand Master of the Union Army. He had the task of reorganizing the State of Louisiana's military bands. During his tenure, the song made it from Gilmore's creative mind onto music paper. It began a fantastic journey for this piece of music, one that continues to this day.

Some feel the song is similar to the Irish tune “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye". This song tells the story of a soldier returning from war with crippling injuries. Gilmore stated that he adapted the song from an African American spiritual song. He wrote the song for his sister, Annie Gilmore, as a cry to her true love, John O'Rourke. A Union Army soldier, O'Rourke was the future brother-in-law of Patrick Gilmore.

When completed the song grew in popularity. It did indeed inspire hope in war-weary listeners, becoming popular in the North as well as the South. It became a published piece of sheet music in 1863 when Henry Tolman and Company of Boston printed it. Dedicated to the Union's Army and Navy, it really was a tribute to brave soldiers. It is interesting that Gilmore published it under another name, Louis Lambert, although a reference to his band was included. Some of Gilmore's other works were, Good News from Home and 22nd Regiment March, among others. You can hear When Johnny Comes Marching Home in films like ‘Stalag 17’ and ‘How the West was Won. ’ The song plays as background music in a ‘Gone with the Wind’ scene.

In his life, Patrick Gilmore created Gilmore's Concert Garden, which was to become the very first Madison Square Garden. He was also Music Director in 1876 in Philadelphia for the U. S. Centennial celebrations.
He received the honor of the name ‘Father of the American Band’ from John Philip Sousa. Sousa had the honor of the name ‘The March King’. Gilmore laid groundwork for composers like Sousa.

Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, born on Christmas day in 1829 in Ballygar, Ireland, died in St. Louis in 1892. His legacy as a master bandleader, musician, and composer marches on.

Duane Shinn is the author of the popular DVD home study course on "Playing & Arranging American Patriotic Songs!"


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