Here is the true story behind the creation of one of the most enduring songs of the Civil War. The song is "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore. At the beginning of the Civil War Patrick S. Gilmore was a bandleader. During the war he and his entire band enlisted in the Union Army. During their service the band was called upon several times to act as stretcher bearers after engagements with the the Confederate army. It has often been suggested that this activity played a major role in the creation of the song. This may be true but if so it was just one element of a larger mosaic that culminated in the creation of the song. To see the entire picture you must first look back to the beginning of the war. At that time Patrick was living on the east coast of the United States. He had several years earlier separated from his parents and had gone off to make his own way in life. For Patrick this meant leaving his native Ireland and Emigrating to the US. His parents, in a move similar to that of Patrick, also emigrated to the United States during the late 1840's or early 1850's. Rather than living on the coast as Patrick had chosen to do they had decided to live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With them they brought Annie M. their daughter and their youngest son Henry D. When the Civil War broke out these children were in their late teens and, much as Patrick himself did, they felt the call to serve the Union cause. For Annie this meant being loyal to her beau, a young man named John O'Rourke. John had enlisted in the Union Army as a private and had immediately been promoted to Captain within the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Throughout the war Annie would remain loyal to her Captain and pine for his return. For Henry the war meant enlisting in the Union Army. As an Infantry soldier he would do his part to serve his adopted country. At first, Henry did very well in the Army. Through his hard work and effort he earned several promotions and eventually reached the rank of Sergeant. It is because of these four people, Patrick, Annie, Henry and John, and the events that were about to unfold in their lives that the song would be penned. Were it not for their love of each other, shared in such a public way, that we today would not be able to express our desire to see our own loved ones return from war in such a powerful way. This then is where the story of the songs creation actually begins. We start with Henry for of all the Gilmore's and O'Rourke's he would pay the highest price for his service to country. Henry was destined to would fall in battle. He would suffer the loss of both legs in an explosion on a field of battle. The loss of his legs were the lesser of his sufferings as he had also suffered extensive head trauma and would forever more be incapable of cognizant thought. Over time his body would heal as best as it could over time but his greatest loss was that of his future. A young man at the time of his injury he would spend the rest of his life in an insane asylum unaware of his condition or state. That Patrick and Annie received word of their brothers fate there was no doubt. Each would have grieved in their own way and in their own way suffered alongside of their fallen brother. Patrick, still serving with his band, was not in eminent danger of injury by this time in the war. Annie remained in Milwaukee and continued to write letters of support to her Captain. But what of the Captain? The Captain had changed duties from Infantry to Artillery and had been sent, along with his men, to the Cumberland Gap area in West Virginia. There he and his men faced nearly daily skirmishes with Rebels and on multiple occasions played prominent roles in open battle with the enemy. It was at this time that Annie wrote a letter to her brother expressing her dire concern for her Captain. Would the Captain fall victim to the same fate as Henry? Would she ever see him alive again? Would he ever return to her at all? It was at this moment in history that the now famous song was penned by Patrick to calm his dear sisters fears. So you see, the song is about Henry who had lost so much and about Johnny who continued to face danger and also about Annie who so longed to have her Johnny back safe and sound. It is here then, at its roots, that we learn the song is an intensely personal message meant to sooth the heart strings of a sister so wracked by doubts and fear over a loved one facing danger. It is also the hope of Patrick that no one else should suffer the fate of his brother in battle. Did the original Johnny make it home again? After many adventures and dangers he in fact returned home where he married his beloved Annie. The two of them would spend the rest of their lives together. Johnny had made it home.
Four people, one short version of the story and a whole new understanding of the song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and its all true. Every word of it. As a final note: Perhaps it is the heartfelt empathy and purity of intent that inspired Patrick when he wrote the song. Perhaps it is these same qualities that have reached out to countless hearts for more than 150 years. And perhaps, yes perhaps, someday there will be an end to war and there will be no more need for the song. Until then we will all look forward to "When Johnny Comes Marching Home".
Note: The photo above of Captain O'Rourke is from the "Captain John O'Rourke House Collection". Notation of this fact must accompany any copy or usage of the image. Thank you.