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Songs of Yesterday: Civil War, Part 5 - When Johnny Comes Marching Home

One of the most popular and frequently heard Civil War song, during and after the conflict, was "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Here is examined the possible origin of the song as well as an in-depth look at the meaning of the lyrics with speculation on the attitudes of the soldiers singing and hearing it.


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When the Civil War was over, and even earlier, for some of the "lucky" ones who were discharged due to injuries or incurable illnesses incurred during the conflict, the soldiers were welcomed back into the family fold. Perhaps your ancestor "came marching home" (as opposed to being delivered in a pine box or, worse, dying on an unknown battlefield or in a prison camp and buried on the spot). Did they sing "We'll give him a hearty welcome then"? Or were there tears and despair because their "Johnny" would never again be the man he had been?

In Ireland, war had been a way of life long before Erin's immigrants landed on the American shore. Perhaps that is why entire regiments consisted of Irish soldiers, many carrying the flag of their homeland along with the stars and stripes (Davis, p. 91). And they lent more than man-power to the ranks of American military: they shared their war songs as well. The old Irish ballad of a man returned from war, too battle-ravaged to be any good to anyone, uses almost the same tune as the Civil War favorite "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." But the tale, told by the family member welcoming him home, is far darker. The title of this Irish song, already popular in the Appalachian region of the United States by the time 1861 rolled around, is "Johnny I Hardly Knew You" (or "Ya," as it was frequently pronounced by the singer).

In the interest of space, I will share just the single lines from the verses (much repetition is used when the song is sung, serving to drive home the point of the message):

1) With your guns and drums and drums and guns, haruh [pronounced "harroo"], haruh; with your guns and drums and drums and guns, haruh, haruh; With your guns and drums and guns and drums, the enemy nearly slew you. Oh, my darling dear, you look so queer, Oh, Johnny, I hardly knew you.

2) I'm happy for to see you home . . . but oh my darling so pale and wan, So low in the cheek, so high in bone, . . .

3) Where are your legs that used to run . . . when first you went to carry a gun? Indeed your dancing days are done . . .

4) Where are your eyes that were so mild . . . when first my heart you so beguiled, Oh why did you run from me and the child . . .

5) You haven't an arm you haven't a leg . . . You're an eyeless, boneless, chickenless egg, And you'll have to be put (in or with) a bowl to beg . . .

Repeat the first verse (Okun, pp. 23-25).

Not everyone is convinced that "Johnny, I Hardly Knew You" was a precursor to the Civil War favorite that talked about Johnny marching home - something the Irish counterpart would seem unable to do, if one is to believe the description of his affliction offered in the lyrics (Silber, pp. 174-175). But others have traced the origin of the Irish ballad back to a 1795 event when a young Irishman, fighting for the British Army in Ceylon (apparently conscripted against his will), returned in far worse shape than when he left. Other uses of the song, published in 1805 (Erbsen, p. 68), occurred in 1817, 1843, and 1848, when the Irish were recruited into service of the East India military. And, again, the song came to the attention of those in the welcoming committee when conflict ended (Silverman, p. 61).

It would seem to me that any "Johnny" being welcomed home with a song like that would certainly feel worse about himself and his condition. Hardly a welcome suited the surviving hero. This song, others claim dating from the 16th Century, has a similar melody and refrain as the American "welcome home" song to be discussed here (Lomax, p. 84). It was 1863 when our Civil War version was published by Patrick Gilmore, a Union Army band leader desiring both to provide hope to the civilians and a marching song for the soldiers. Interestingly enough that, while it gained instant celebrity with and after the Civil War, its popularity peaked during the Spanish American War (McNeil & McNeil, p. 80). The actual sheet music, bearing the name of "Gilmore's Band," credits Louis Lambert as the author (Crawford, p. 113); however, that is simply a nom de plume adopted by Mr. Gilmore (for reasons not specified) (p. x).

So let us look closer at the lyrics of the song that was sung to welcome so many Johnnies and Tommies and Willies and Jimmies home. Its composer was himself an Irishman, so it is likely that he was influenced by the tune already known well in his homeland, and brought to America by the immigrants from that country. Born in 1829, Gilmore was one of the many who headed to America to escape the potato famine of the 1840s. His claim that he composed the entire piece, with no outside influence, is questioned largely because of the tendency of songwriters to borrow, often without conscious thought, the tunes of other songsmiths. There is enough variance between the two tunes that no one was likely to scream "plagiarism" - at least, not in those times, especially when Gilmore's creation answered a definite need in the public when it was first published in 1863 (Silverman, pp. 62-63; Crawford, p. 113).

"When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah! Hurrah! We'll give him a hearty welcome then, hurrah! Hurrah! The men will cheer and the boys will shout; the ladies they will all turn out. And we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home" (Glazer, pp. 48-49).

Those words, the first verse and chorus, give us a sense of what the people at home were feeling, finally seeing their boys coming home. But this piece was published in 1863, so many were not going to be able to sing these words for a couple of years (and, of course, many would never be able to sing them at all for their own Johnnies). I do not believe it requires mentioning, but I will do so for the younger readers of this: the word "gay," in the 19th Century, referred to a joyful attitude or emotion, not a sexual preference. Some have tried to update this song to make it more politically correct, but that is to deny the full sense of complete excitement over the return of one's loved one, in my opinion.

My own great-grandfather served in the Civil War and was on the March to the Sea, seeing the War to its conclusion. Reports from Milwaukee, the city from which he left and to which he returned, state that around 5000 citizens came to meet the early morning train when the many Johnnies arrived back home in Milwaukee. It was 4:00 am when the train arrived to the sound of cannon fire and cheers, just as stated in the song. (Ironically, my great-grandfather actually was a Johnny - John Adam Hollander - and he was one of the lucky ones: of the 1,000 who left with him in 1862, only 325 returned.) And the song played by the bands that were there to greet them? Yup, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" (Beaudot, pp. 356-357)! Indeed, one might say that everyone meeting the train was feeling gay (if their sons, brothers, husbands, or fathers were aboard); but how about the soldiers? They had experienced and witnessed some of the most horrific things while in combat; no doubt they were relieved to be home alive, but "gay"? One might wonder.

The second verse of the song states that "The old church bell will peal with joy . . . To welcome home our darling boy . . . The village lads and lassies say with roses they will strew the way . . ."(Glazer, pp. 48-49). It is reasonable to assume that, if folks knew there would be a homecoming, it might well resemble this type of scene. While my own ancestor was welcomed home with cannon fire and train whistles, other towns probably got the church bells ringing.

On to verse three: "Get ready for the Jubilee . . . We'll give our hero three times three . . . The laurel wreath is ready now, to place upon his loyal brow . . ." (Glazer, pp. 48-49). This term, "Jubilee" (sometimes called "Jubilo") refers to the time when the slaves would be truly free: many believing that it would not actually happen until after the Second Coming of Christ, but many holding out hope that it would occur with the end of the War of the Rebellion. Others declared the year of Jubilee to be 1863 with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (Crawford, pp. 149-152), which was also the year of the publishing of Gilmore's song. In the 1800s, "jubilee" generally referred to a celebration at the completion of a fifty-year period (The Century Dictionary, p. 3245), but the slaves had been in bondage for much longer than that; and the War was completed in five, not fifty years (thank God). The term is usually found in songs about the end of slavery, sung by the African Americans, but here appears to be used for all the Johnnies, regardless of ethnicity or nativity. "Three times three," of course, refers to the "three cheers" the hero gets; only on this occasion, the welcome is tripled as these heroes are so welcomed and lauded. Another way of recognizing a person of distinction is by presenting him/her with a wreath made of laurel (of which there are many varieties). Interestingly, the word "laurel" also refers to one's achievements in a particular field (Stein, p. 811), giving this word a double meaning in this context.

The last verse (often omitted in performances of the song) says, "Let love and friendship on that day . . . Their choicest treasure then display . . . And let each one perform some part to fill with joy the warrior's heart . . ." (Glazer, pp. 48-49). Here there is some responsibility given to the townsfolk: let the returning soldier know that his efforts were not in vain. When we examine some of the homecomings of veterans from other, more recent wars, we can see that we have fallen short of this responsibility on many occasions.

This was, of course, a Union song (composed by a Union band leader), but, as happened over and over, the Confederates soon penned their own version of the sentiments that were felt just as deeply on the other side (Lomax, p. 98). There is not room here to go into the detail of the different versions, nor to speculate on the sentiments that accompanied them. Parodies, expansions, and different renditions have emerged following later wars and other circumstances (Silber, p. 175), including a fifth verse to the original four, penned about 1885 and sung by the members of the Grand Army of the Republic (the veterans of the 1860s conflict): "Though twenty years have passed since then . . . We honor more those glorious men . . . Their valor saved Columbia's land, With joy we grasp each veteran's hand, And we all felt gay that Johnny came marching home" (Old War Songs, p. 23). So this implies to me that, while many soldiers may have felt that the original Irish version of Johnny's return from the battlefront was a more accurate depiction of their reality, many of the veterans were proud of their service to their country.

Whether your ancestor fought on the winning or losing side, if he came home from the War, he was one of the lucky ones. Whether he had all his limbs, was able to see or not, was so disabled he could not eek out a living in post-1865 America, he was a survivor and deserved to have a proper greeting on his return to the home front. And, while his life had to have been changed by the experience, his very existence has contributed to your life, even if he was not a direct-line ancestor. Let us continue to honor those, both who came home and the ones who did not: they fought for a cause they believed in. Welcome home, Johnny.


Beaudot, William J. K. The 24th Wisconsin Infantry in the Civil War: The Biography of a Regiment, Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.

Century Dictionary of the English Language, The: An Encyclopedic Lexicon, Part XI. New York: The Century Co., 1889.

Crawford, Richard (Ed.). The Civil War Songbook: Complete Original Sheet Music for 37 Songs. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977.

Davis, Burke. The Civil War: Strange & Fascinating Facts. New York: The Fairfax Press, 1982.

Erbsen, Wayne. Rousing Songs and True Tales of the Civil War. Asheville, NC: Native Ground Music, Inc., 1999.

Glazer, Tom (Ed.). A Treasury of Civil War Songs: 25 Songs of the Union and the Confederacy. Milwaukee: Hal-Leonard Corp., 1996.

Lomax, Alan. The Folk Songs of North America. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1960.

McNeil, Keith & McNeil, Rusty. Civil War Songbook with Historical Commentary. Riverside, CA: WEM Records, 1999.

Okun, Milton (Collector/Arranger). "The Carter Family" selection from Something to Sing About! The Personal Choices of America's Folk Singers (pp. 20-27), New York: The MacMillan Co., 1968.

Old War Songs and G.A.R. and Patriotic Songs, presented to the Grand Army of the Republic at the 23d National Encampment at Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 27th, 1889.

Silber, Irwin (Ed.). Songs of the Civil War. New York: Dover Pub., Inc., 1995.

Silverman, Jerry. Songs and Stories of the Civil War. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.

Stein, Jess (Ed.). The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Random House, 1969.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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