Irishman Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore served as a musician and stretcher-bearer in the 24th Massachusetts Infantry during the American Civil War. His incredible post-army musical career includes penning When Johnny Comes Marching Home and performing some of the biggest musical shows ever seen, along the way becoming one of the icons of nineteenth century America. Gilmore expert Jarlath MacNamara brings us his remarkable story in the latest Guest Post on the site.
Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore was born outside Dublin in 1829, and from an infant was raised in Ballygar, Co Galway. He developed a love of music learning to play fife and drum and later studied it in detail in Athlone, Co Westmeath.
Boston and the Civil War
As a 19-year-old he emigrated with one million others, escaping the Great Famine in 1849. Arriving in Massachusetts he conducted bands in Salem and Boston and developed his craft further as an innovative conductor and band leader. Whilst in Boston he developed the initial 4th July Celebrations and the Boston Promenade Concerts, and was invited to lead the inauguration parade of President Buchanan in Washington D.C. in 1857 (the first of eight inaugurations Patrick participated in). In 1860 Gilmore’s band played to both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions- Abraham Lincoln was selected to run at the latter. At the outset of the Civil War both he and his band volunteered en masse for service with what became the 24th Massachusetts Infantry, setting sail to take part in the famous Burnside Expedition to the Carolinas in early 1862.
Nana Mouskouri performs ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’
Patrick saw action at Roanoke, New Bern and Tranter’s Creek, and is recorded as playing music for his Union colleagues as well as entertaining Confederate prisoners and acting as a stretcher-bearer on the battlefield. In 1863 he composed a song that still stands the test of time; a ballad which mentions neither victor nor vanquished, cause or result: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” He was inducted into the American Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 for this composition. Patrick had written the song under the pseudonym of ‘Louis Lambert.’
Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore organised four great “Gilmorean Concert Jubilees” (‘Gilmorean’ was a word created by Harper’s Weekly to describe his massive concerts, which had no compare). They were as follows:
1. In 1864 Gilmore was asked by General Banks and Governor Andrews of Massachusetts to organise the inauguration ceremony of Governor Michael Hahn, the first Union Governor elected during the Civil War in Louisiana. For this occasion Gilmore conducted a band of 500 musicians assisted by a choir of over 5,000 voices, in front of an audience of over 35,000 in Lafayette Square, New Orleans.
2. In 1869 Gilmore organised the National Peace Jubilee Festival in Boston which took place over five days; 1,000 musicians were accompanied by a choir of 10,000 before an estimated audience of 50,000 people. Designed to help heal the wounds of the Civil War, President Grant and his cabinet were in attendance.
Johann Strauss II Jubilee Waltz dedicated to Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore and written for the International Peace Jubilee
3. In 1872 Gilmore organised the World Peace Jubilee which outwardly was designed to celebrate the end of the Franco-Prussian War in Europe, but which Gilmore viewed as a test to gauge where both his band and that of the U.S. Marines were placed compared with international leaders in music. The festival took place over 18 days in a custom built stadium in Boston. Participating bands included the French band of the Garde Républicaine, the Prussian band of the Kaiser Franz Grenadier Regiment, the band of the Royal Grenadier Guards, the orchestra of Johann Strauss Jnr., and an Irish band from Dublin. Gilmore had to pay Strauss to appear, as the Austrian was apparently concerned that his locks would be removed by warring Indians. By the end of the festival Gilmore realised that both his band and that of the U.S. Marines were vastly inferior to the bands of the Old World, and so he instituted new standards which survive to this day and led to the United States being accepted as a centre of performance excellence.
4. Following The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore agreed to hold a concert to help the city re-establish itself as a centre of commerce. In 1873 he gave a five day concert in the city’s new railway passenger terminal building. The building held 40,000 spectators and Gilmore conducted an orchestra of 300 combined with a choir of 3,000. The event helped to relaunch the city as a centre of enterprise and innovation.
Reorganisation and New York
Patrick moved to New York City in 1873 and set about building a band that would surpass all in Europe. Over the next five years rehearsals increased, the repertoire was broadened, and the Gilmore band’s library of music was increased to over 11,000 separate scores. Performances including touring, expositions and parades increased, and Gilmore’s popularity intensified throughout the country.
In 1878 he arranged for his band to tour Europe, taking in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Holland, Belgium, France and Germany. They played 151 concerts and were judged by all as the greatest band ever heard at this time in the world. They played for one month in the United Kingdom alone, performing 65 concerts between Bristol and Aberdeen and being cheered everywhere they went. The King of Holland and the Kaiser both attended concerts, and even Queen Victoria invited them to Balmoral Castle, but Gilmore declined as it would have made the band late for the planned 4th of July celebrations at the Paris Exposition at the Trocadero. The Germans acclaimed “Gilmores American Band” as the greatest musical organisation in the world, and Gilmore was delighted with the tour. He had helped to elevate the United States as a centre of serious cultural performance in the eyes of the Europeans.
The West Point Band play ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’
Returning home he concentrated on continuing the development and organisation of his band. He assumed the lease for the Hippodrome in New York City, which became ‘Gilmore Gardens’ and was later to become known as Madison Square Gardens. Gilmore’s record still stands when he played more than 150 consecutive concerts in front of crowds of 10,000 or more in the Gardens. He acted as the musical director at national events such as the American National Centennial Celebrations in Philadelphia in 1876 and the inauguration ceremony for the Statue of Liberty in 1886. He was America’s first superstar in a modern sense. Expositions in Kansas and St. Louis would not open without having Gilmore’s band booked for the event, and when Texas opened their new State Capitol building it was Gilmore who was Musical Director. Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore was by far the best known Irishman in nineteenth century America. In 1889 alone, his band on tour was seen by in excess of one million people, with crowds of 12,000 per night in Austin, 5,000 per night in San Francisco and 10,000 per night in New Orleans.
Gilmore, Parnell, Davitt and Ireland
Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore never forgot Ireland or his fellow Irish. He was acclaimed as an Irishman in American newspaper articles throughout his career. When Charles Stuart Parnell and Michael Davitt needed to promote their policies it was to Gilmore that they turned, not only for monetary support but also public endorsement. Gilmore included references to Home Rule in his concert programmes and even wrote a ballad dedicated to Home Rule entitled ‘Ireland to England.’ He raised money for Famine Relief, Clan na Gael, the Annual Emerald Ball for Orphans and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. He also spoke of the value of the ‘Boycott’ to the Irish people and declared publicly and proudly that “he was an Irishman.”
Boston Commandery March played by Gilmore’s Band and recorded on an Edison Home Model B Phonograph, c.1899
In 1891 Gilmore approached New York City Hall council for a permit to welcome in the New Year from the steps of City Hall and celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus arriving in America. This became the first official public New Year’s celebration in New York City- a tradition started by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore.
When he died in 1892 an estimated 500,000 lined Fifth Avenue in New York for his funeral at St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan. John Philip Sousa named Gilmore the “Father of the American Band” and said later that if anyone “who could do one thousandth as much good for mankind as was done by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, his memory will indeed be blessed.” Gilmore’s fame has faded over the years and today is virtually unknown. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, Queens.
*I am indebted to Jarlath MacNamara for preparing this article for the site and providing the images. Jarlath is dedicated to telling the story of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore and has amassed a substantial archive of material relating to him. He also lectures on the topic, most recently at the History Festival of Ireland at Duckett’s Grove, Co. Carlow. If you would like to contact Jarlath regarding Gilmore his email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Roe, Alfred 1907. History of the 24th Mass Volunteers 1861-1866.
Lee and Shepard, Boston. History of Peace Jubilee P S Gilmore 1871.
Darlington, Marwood 1851. Irish Orpheus.
Goldman, Richard 1961. The Wind Band.
Lord, Francis & Wise, Arthur 1966. Bands and Drummer Boys of the Civil War.
MacNamara Gilmore Collection of Ephemera and Memorabilia from 19th Century 1850-2006
MacNamara Gilmore Collection of Newspaper articles consisting of Articles, Concert Advertisments, Concert Previews , Concert Reviews and Interviews totalling over 2700 entries from 1852 – 1908