Marching Home to the Beat of a Purloined Melody

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2018-2019, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the March 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


On August 31, 1976 a district court in New York City ruled that former Beatle George Harrison was guilty of copyright infringement. Harrison was ordered by the court to pay nearly $1.6 million to the publisher of the song that Harrison had plagiarized, although that amount was subsequently amended to $587,000. The lawsuit involved Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord,” which rose to number one in the U.S. and in so doing made Harrison the first of the former Beatles to have a number one song as a solo artist. The song that Harrison plagiarized is “He’s So Fine,” which was released by the singing group The Chiffons in December 1962 and became a number one song in 1963. Although the presiding judge in the trial, Richard Owen, acknowledged that he believed that Harrison had not deliberately plagiarized “He’s So Fine,” the judge nevertheless asserted that what Harrison did was “under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.” U.S. copyright laws were certainly different at the time of George Harrison’s trial compared to the mid-19th century, but a judicial fate like that of George Harrison’s could have befallen the person who composed one of the most popular and uplifting songs of the Civil War.

Patrick Gilmore

The person in question is Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, and at his peak Gilmore was as renowned and accomplished as George Harrison. Patrick Gilmore was born in County Galway, Ireland on Christmas day of 1829. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1849 and settled in Boston. Prior to his arrival in the U.S., Gilmore learned to play the cornet under the tutelage of a retired bandleader named Patrick Keating. At the time that Gilmore took up residence in his new country, he was already a very talented cornetist, and in 1852 he rose to become the leader of the Charlestown, Massachusetts Town Band. Within a year he became, first, the director of the Suffolk Brass Band and then the Boston Brigade Band. Soon thereafter Gilmore left the Boston Brigade Band to become director of the Salem Brigade Band, and it was under Gilmore’s leadership that this band played for the inauguration of James Buchanan. However, the members of the Boston Brigade Band had developed strong feelings of animosity toward Gilmore and his new band after Gilmore deserted his previous band to take his new position. As a result, the members of the Boston Brigade Band concocted a plan for an attack on the Salem Brigade Band at the train station when it returned from Buchanan’s inauguration. The planned attack involved destroying the instruments of the Salem band members and also injuring their lips to prevent them from playing. But the Salem band, which had no knowledge of the planned attack, took an earlier train to Boston than they had been scheduled to take and thereby avoided the harm that the Boston Brigade Band had prepared to inflict on them.

Although the Boston band’s vindictive attack never took place, the Salem Brigade Band somehow learned of the planned attack by their Boston rivals. Because of this, the Salem band was fearful of a repeat attempt by the Boston band. On the Salem band’s next trip, Gilmore arranged to have a sizable number of Salem ruffians accompany the band for protection. When the Salem band exited the train, ruffians who had been enlisted by the Boston band set upon them at the train station. But the Salem goons did what they had been brought along to do, and the Boston ruffians were on the receiving end of the iniquity that they had intended to deliver to the members of the Salem band.

During the year after the performance at Buchanan’s inauguration, Patrick Gilmore married Ellen O’Neill. The following year, 1859, Gilmore was lured back to be the leader of the Boston Brigade Band. In spite of the animosity that the band had previously felt toward Gilmore, the band recognized that Gilmore was an exceptional director who could elevate both the band’s prowess and its reputation. In addition to monetary inducement, Gilmore was lured back by a change in the band’s name to Patrick Gilmore’s Band. At this time in his life, Gilmore was highly regarded as a director of concert bands, and over the next 30 years Gilmore rose to even greater prominence.

At the start of the Civil War, volunteer regiments were permitted to have bands attached to them. In the fall of 1861 Gilmore had his entire band enlisted. The band was attached to the 24th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and the band accompanied this regiment on its military campaigns. The band went to North Carolina with the expedition that was sent there under the command of Ambrose Burnside. In mid-1862, when it became clear that the war would not be the short conflict that many had forecast, the U.S. government decided to eliminate regimental bands as a cost-cutting measure. In August 1862 Gilmore’s band mustered out, but Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, the man who was instrumental in the creation of the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, approached Gilmore to organize bands for Massachusetts regiments. Gilmore did so, and in 1863 he accompanied one of those bands as its director when the band returned to duty. Gilmore’s band was present at the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Gilmore’s band was stationed in New Orleans when the first Union governor of Louisiana was inaugurated on March 4, 1864. Gilmore was tasked with organizing the musical performance for the inauguration celebration, and he assembled a band consisting of 500 instrumentalists and a chorus of 5,000. This experience with a very large band and chorus inspired Gilmore to organize two prodigious musical events after the Civil War.

The World’s Peace Jubilee
John Philip Sousa

The two gigantic musical extravaganzas that Gilmore organized after the war made him the most prominent bandleader of his time. The first was the National Peace Jubilee in Boston in June 1869 to celebrate the return of the country to peace after the horrible conflict that had claimed so many lives and torn the country apart. The National Peace Jubilee was a five-day musical event that was held in a specially constructed hall with seating for 30,000. Gilmore assembled over 1,000 instrumentalists and over 10,000 vocalists as performers. One of the highlights of the concert was a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus,” which included church bells, cannon fired in synchronization with the music, a bass drum eight feet in diameter, and 100 Boston firemen striking anvils. As if this spectacular event were not enough, Gilmore organized another enormous concert, the World’s Peace Jubilee, which was held in Boston in June 1872. This was an even larger and longer event, 18 days in duration with 2,000 instrumentalists and 20,000 vocalists as well as famous bands and performers from Europe, including Johann Strauss, who made his only appearance in the U.S. Also performing were some famous American bands, including the United States Marine Band, which around that time had as one of its members a young man 17 years of age named John Philip Sousa. However, the World’s Peace Jubilee took place during the six-month period between Sousa’s first and second enlistments with the band, so Sousa likely did not perform at the World’s Peace Jubilee. Nevertheless, Sousa was greatly influenced by Gilmore, and in fact, when Sousa left the Marines for good, it was to become the director of a civilian concert band, which is the same kind of position that Gilmore had held for many years.

Patrick Gilmore and his New York band

The year after the World’s Peace Jubilee, Gilmore left Boston to become the leader of a concert band in New York City. He made this move in part because New York City had become the principal location of top concert bands. The band that Gilmore directed was the 22nd New York Regiment Band, and shortly after his move to New York City, Gilmore leased a venue for his band’s concerts. That venue was owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, but it had been leased to P.T. Barnum, under whom the venue was called the Great Roman Hippodrome or, more grandly, Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome. After Gilmore leased the venue, he renamed it Gilmore’s Garden. A few years later, the Vanderbilt family took control of the facility and gave it a new name, although they retained part of the name that Gilmore had given to the structure. The Vanderbilt family renamed the facility Madison Square Garden, and this was the first iteration of that famous New York City venue, of which there have now been four different structures to bear that name, each one built to replace the previous one.

A sketch of P.T. Barnum’s Great Roman Hippodrome

Patrick Gilmore remained the leader of the 22nd New York Regiment Band for the next 19 years until his death. Under Gilmore’s leadership, the band became the best and most celebrated concert band in the U.S. Gilmore’s band toured throughout the U.S. and also in Europe, and the band was renowned not only for the extremely high quality of its performances, but also the very high number of performances that it gave. In the fall of 1892 the band was in St. Louis as part of a tour. On September 23 Gilmore conducted the band, and on the following night, while the band was being conducted by the assistant conductor, a message was delivered during the program that Patrick Gilmore had died. Gilmore’s body was transported to New York City, where he was buried. Two days after Gilmore’s death, John Philip Sousa conducted the first concert of the civilian band for which he had left the Marines in order to become director. One of Patrick Gilmore’s most important legacies is his innovation of instrumentation for concert bands that consists of a blending of brass and woodwinds rather than the predominately or exclusively brass instrumentation of the earlier 19th century. Gilmore’s blended brass and woodwind instrumentation is still the prevailing format for concert bands today.

Sheet music for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”

Patrick Gilmore’s novel instrumentation for concert bands is one of his greatest legacies, but it is not his best-known legacy. Gilmore’s best-known legacy is the Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” But while Gilmore composed the lyrics (under the pseudonym Louis Lambert), the jaunty melody is another matter. Even though sheet music that was published in 1863 by Gilmore’s publisher credits Gilmore’s pseudonym, Louis Lambert, for both the words and the music, there is reason to believe that the melody for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” was, to put it kindly, borrowed from a soldiers’ drinking song named “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl.” Various lyrics exist for “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl,” but one set of lyrics for the first stanza is as follows. “A soldier I’m just from the war, hurrah, hurrah / A soldier I’m just from the war, hurrah, hurrah / A soldier I’m just from the war, where thundering guns and cannons roar / And we’ll all drink stone blind / Johnny, fill up the bowl.” This song’s melody is essentially the same as that of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and there is compelling evidence that Patrick Gilmore did not compose the melody for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” but appropriated the melody from “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl.” For example, a copy of Gilmore’s lyrics that was published by Gilmore’s publisher contains the instruction that the song should be sung to the tune of “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl.” In addition, Gilmore admitted in an 1883 article that the melody for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” “was a musical waif which I happened to hear somebody humming in the early days of the rebellion, and taking a fancy to it, wrote it down, dressed it up, gave it a name, and rhymed it into usefulness for a special purpose suited to the times.” This comment from Gilmore, himself, is strong evidence that he did not compose the melody for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Instead, that melody appears to have come from “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl.” In other words, Patrick Gilmore seems to have done just what George Harrison did with “My Sweet Lord” and “He’s So Fine.” (Some sources assert that the melody for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” was taken from the Irish anti-war song “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye.” But there is evidence that this is not so, in particular the fact that the latter song was not published until after the Civil War.)

Patrick Gilmore has an illustrious musical legacy, but very few people know about that legacy. This is in contrast to John Philip Sousa, who gained his fame in a similar musical genre and whose legacy is well known. The reason for this difference is that Sousa composed many pieces, while Gilmore’s body of work does not contain many compositions of his own making. However, Gilmore does have one musical composition that is very well known, particularly to Civil War enthusiasts. The song that Gilmore composed, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” was one of the most popular songs during the Civil War because of its rousing melody and uplifting lyrics about loved ones returning from the war. But Gilmore almost certainly pirated the melody for this song, although he was not unique in this Civil War musical transgression. Two of the most iconic songs of the Civil War, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” likewise came into existence when someone set new lyrics to the melodies of pre-existing songs. This makes Patrick Gilmore no worse than the composers of those songs, Julia Ward Howe and Harry McCarthy, or, for that matter, no worse than a former member of the most influential and most innovative rock-and-roll band in history.

6 thoughts on “Marching Home to the Beat of a Purloined Melody”

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