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“When Johnny Comes Marching Home” Marches Across Time

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Sometimes listeners are surprised to find a familiar tune lurking behind the lyrics of a new song. Songwriters may revisit and reuse existing compositions, hoping to catch a listener’s attention through something familiar. The Civil War era song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” not only resembles an earlier song, but also inspired a number of parodies.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home sheet music, 1863

When Johnny Comes Marching Home song sheet, n.d.


In 1863, in his role as grand master of the Union Army, Patrick Gilmore was ordered to reorganize the state military bands. It was then that he composed the words and music to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Gilmore published the song under the pseudonym Louis Lambert, although the title page also read “as introduced by Gilmore’s Band.” Some note that his composition bears a great similarity to the melody of an earlier Irish song, “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye,” a protest song about conscription into the British Army.

Where are your legs that used to run,
huroo, huroo,
Where are your legs that used to run,
huroo, huroo,
Where are your legs that used to run
when first you went for to carry a gun?
Alas, your dancing days are done, och,
Johnny, I hardly knew ye.”

In addition to his musical ability, Gilmore had a flair for showmanship. He organized a huge concert in New Orleans’ Lafayette Square, with 500 musicians and 5,000 or more schoolchildren, many from Confederate families. “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” finished in time for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender, was part of a rousing return home for the troops.

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home” became popular with Northerners and Southerners alike. In 1939, a child of the Civil War era remembered:

The songs we sang were all patriotic. My niece Mary Hill, or Mollie, as we called her, but two years younger than I, was a little songbird. She learned all the popular songs of the day and was ready to sing on any
occasion. “Dixie Land” was one of her favorites. She earned the pet name of “Dixie” by this song. Other songs that were sung in school entertainments were “When Johnny comes marching home again,” [and] “On the field of battle, mother.”

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” gave rise to many parodies, including the well-known Confederate parody “For Bales.” Another parody, “Johnny, Fill Up the Bowl,” reflected Northerners’ concerns about taxes, conscription, and inflation. Examining and comparing print and audio versions can introduce historical perspectives and may help students better understand the lived experiences of the time.

The song remained popular in subsequent American wars, reached new heights of popularity during the Spanish American War, and was used to express concerns about the Vietnam War, as well. Studying versions across time might help students see how popular melodies support new lyrics.

Please let us know in the comments what your students notice when they study various versions of this once-popular song!




Comments (2)

  1. Looking for additional refrains from 1969 Vietnam protest song sung to the tune of ” when Johnny comes marching home ” I only remember 2 one of which one is s follows :
    We’re all gonna go to Vietnam Hurrah, hurrah
    We’re all gonna go to Vietnam Hurrah Hurrah
    We’re all gonna go to Vietnam
    Get our legs shot off by a min gun
    And we’ll all be dead by Christmas time next year

    another refrain is about the plastic bags The third I forgot somehow. There may have been more.

    • Good morning, I forwarded your inquiry to the American Folklife Center which also includes the Veterans History Project. They will respond to you directly.

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