With the fall of Savannah, Northern hopes brightened and families on both sides began to anticipate the return of the troops. Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, a renowned regimental bandleader, caught this eagerness in “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a lively march that survives today in various forms, among them a campfire song known to most children as “The Ants Go Marching One by One.” Gilmore’s song directs the home folks to “get ready for the Jubilee” when roses and laurel wreaths will fill the returning warriors’ hearts with joy. The cruel war was nearly over.
Gilmore rose through the musical ranks to achieve legendary status at a time when regimental bands played a key role in military strategy. Early in the war they often lead infantry into battle, retiring to the rear only at the final moment to serve as stretcher-bearers and hospital orderlies. Occasionally they stood their ground at the front; at the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House, for example, General Sheridan placed all his bands on the firing line and ordered them to play loudly and gaily, and the Confederates did the same. Edward P. Jobie recalled this battle of the bands:
Our band came up from the rear and cheered and animated our hearts by its rich music; ere long a rebel band replied by giving us Southern airs; with cheers from each side in encouragement of its own band, a cross-fire of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” “Yankee Doodle,” and “John Brown’s Body” mingled with “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”
By 1863 regimental bands, some of them sixty musicians strong, had for the most part been replaced by smaller fife and drum corps.
The Irish-born Gilmore wrote “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” under the pseudonym “Louis Lambert” while in New Orleans under General Banks’s command. He fitted his gay lyrics to what many scholars believe to be an old Irish tune called “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye” and “Johnny, Fill Up The Bowl.” Full of heroic sentiment, the song joyfully depicts the return of the men as righteous, necessary, and, most important, imminent. One of musical history’s small ironies is that its power is undiminished as an anti-war song.
When Johnny Comes Marching Home
When Johnny comes marching home again,
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then,
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.
The old church-bell will peal with joy,
To welcome home our darling boy,
The village lads and lasses say
With roses they will strew the way. (Chorus)
Get ready for the Jubilee,
We’ll give the hero three times three,
The laurel wreath is ready now
To place upon his loyal brow. (Chorus)
Let love and friendship on that day,
Their choicest treasures then display,
And let each one perform some part
To fill with joy the warrior’s heart. (Chorus)