When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again

When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again was written by Irish-born American composer and bandleader Patrick Gilmore and published in 1863.

Lyrics and chords

It looks forward to the celebrations that will take place when the soldiers return safely from the American Civil War.

Patrick Gilmore (American bandleader) wrote When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again
Patrick Gilmore

It was popular with soldiers and their families on both sides of the conflict and went on to be a classic American song, much beloved by military and brass bands.

Gilmore was serving with the Massachusetts Infantry at the time and used the pseudonym Louis Lambert on the sheet music when the song was published.

Who was Johnny?

Many people on the Confederate side of the war liked to the think the song referred to Johnny Reb but this is unlikely, especially as in the first edition of the song, Gilmore (Lambert) dedicates it to the “army and navy of the union”.

John O'Rourke
John O’Rourke

It’s thought that Johnny refers to John O’Rourke who was the fiancé of Gilmore’s sister, Annie O’Rourke was a captain with the Union army.

However, although O’Rourke may have been the inspiration for the song, Johnny is really being used as a generic name for all the soldiers fighting in the War.

Far from being a partisan song on one side or the other, it was a song that could unite people because all it calls for is the safe return of the soldiers.

Same tune as Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya

When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again has the same melody and verse structure as the Irish anti-war song, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya.

This has led to some debate between folk song historians as to which song came first.

Their structures are the same and they are both about returning from war but they are very different because their viewpoints are from different moments in time.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again is full of optimism and hope because it looks forward to a time when the war is over and the soldiers will march home safely.

Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya is set further along the timeline when the soldier has already come home, but instead of joyful reunion, there is only tragedy because of Johnny’s catastrophic injuries.

Dolluy Parton performing When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again

Songs parody each other but which came first?

The two songs share the same melody and lyrical structure so one is clearly a parody of the other but which came first?

Gilmore didn’t claim to have written the music to his version and said he had heard it being hummed by a youngster in New Orleans. Gilmore never clarified what that song was called.

It could have been Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya, or it could have been some other unknown song that has since been lost but which served as a template for both of the two classic “Johnny” songs.

Most Irish songs were part of an oral tradition

When Johnny Comes Marching Home was the first to be published in print form which would suggest it was the original. On the other hand, many Irish songs were passed down orally for generations before they were published.

There is also a reference in the Irish song to Johnny being stationed in Ceylon. This would most likely refer to the Kandyan Wars, which occupied British forces between 1803 and 1815. This would suggest that Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya came first, but it is not conclusive.

Unless, researchers find a printed version of Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya that predates the American version, the debate is likely to continue.

Find out more about Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya.

The battle of Gettysburg, 3rd July 1863, showing Battle of Gettysburg, July 1—3, 1863 - part of American Civil War and was won by the North. Lithograph by Currier and Ives
Battle of Gettysburg by Currier and Ives

When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again
Lyrics and chords