I first became familiar with this song as a child from the 1968 recording by Glen Campbell on his "That Christmas Feeling" LP. It was a melody that seemed to stick with me and, over the years, it became one of my favorite Christmas songs. It was not until many years later that I became aware of the historical significance of this piece of music and the tremendous impact it had on the American people during one of the most difficult and defining times in our history.
"Home, Sweet Home" was written by American lyricist John Howard Payne and English music composer Sir Henry Rowley Bishop as part of their 1823 Shakespearean opera "Clari, the Maid of Milan". In 1852, the song was re-published as a parlor ballad, which forever cemented its popularity throughout the second half of the 19th century.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, the plaintive lyrics and haunting melody caused "Home, Sweet Home" to become what many historians refer to as "the Civil War soldier's favorite song". Desperately homesick soldiers, north and south, most of whom before the war had never traveled beyond their own home towns, would cling to the tune, especially late at night in camp when their time was often spent writing to their mothers and sweethearts and the heartbreaking yearning for home was its strongest.
According to historian Ernest L. Abe, Union officers at one time refused to allow their bands to play "Home, Sweet Home" for fear it would make the men so homesick that they would become too demoralized to fight or that they might desert. But in effect, the opposite occurred. Whenever Billy Yank or Johnny Reb sang "Home, Sweet Home," or listened to it being played by his regimental band, it reminded him of his responsibility to protect his home and his loved ones, thereby reinforcing the personal stake each soldier had in fighting for his side.
The impact that "Home, Sweet Home" had on Civil War soldiers was so profound that it had the ability to unite Confederate and Union troops and end the fighting altogether -- if even for only a little while -- as it did during Christmas of 1862.
Following the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, almost 200,000 Union and Confederate troops were camped on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River in Virginia. The battle had been one of the bloodiest of the war so far with nearly 20,000 casualties, and both sides were "still licking their wounds and entertaining murderous thoughts about the other".
At twilight, as was typical in camp, the regimental bands on either side began their evening concerts. When they were bivouacked close together, as they were on this particular night, the Union and Confederate bands would often try to play over one another or sometimes they might turns, each playing their own patriotic tunes with as much skillful flair as they possibly could, turning their nighttime concerts into "Battles of the Bands".
Toward the end of the evening concerts, the music often became more nostalgic and heartfelt. On this occasion, as a Union band began playing "Home, Sweet Home," a Confederate band joined in. One after another, every regimental band in both armies began playing along. Everyone stopped what they were doing. In the cold, night air, everything became still and silent ... except for the music.
Then, in the words of Frank Mixson, a private in the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, as the last notes of "Home, Sweet Home" faded away into the darkness, "everyone went crazy." Both sides began cheering, jumping up and down and throwing their hats into the air, Mixson said. "Had there not been a river between them, the two armies would have met face to face, shaken hands, and ended the war on the spot."
Two weeks later, on New Year's Eve 1862, the song "Home, Sweet Home" again found its way into history. In the words of historian James I. Robertson: "On the night before what became a three-day engagement at Stone's River, Tennessee, a cold, winter night, men on both sides were huddled in the darkness. Early in the evening, a Union band began to play some of the great Union songs and as it finished each song, the Union soldiers would applaud. But so were Johnny Rebs, thousands of them that were in position just across the field. Toward the end of the evening, the band began to pack up its instruments and suddenly, from across the way, came shouts from the Confederates: 'Now play some of our songs, play some of our songs!' The Union musicians unpacked and they began to play some of the songs that were dear to Confederate soldiers. And then the Union band struck up the opening chords to 'Home, Sweet Home' and it is estimated that 81,000 men, blue and gray, sang that song together ... the greatest chorus in the history of the western hemisphere. Three days later, 23,000 of those voices would sing no more."
"Home, Sweet Home" was recorded frequently after the turn of the 20th century, notably by well-known classical singers Nellie Melba in 1905 and Amelita Galli-Curci in 1917. In the early years of radio and television, "Home, Sweet Home" remained a sentimental favorite and even became popular as an instrumental bluegrass piece in the 1950s.
In 1968, songwriter Sammy Cahn wrote a modern set of lyrics set to the iconic melody and a pop ballad version titled "There's No Place Like Home" was released that same year, sung by Glen Campbell. Still, it is the timeless melody and Payne's original haunting phase of "be it ever so humble, there's no place like home" that have become forever engrained into American culture.
This medley includes John Howard Payne's 19th century verses -- those profoundly meaningful words that gave strength and purpose to millions of American men, women, and children during our time of unequaled triumph and tragedy -- wrapped around Sammy Cahn's lovely 1968 lyrics. Hopefully, this medley can somehow help illustrate the lasting and powerful legacy that music offers to us all.
1823 words and music by John Howard Payne and Sir Henry Rowley Bishop (in the public domain). 1968 lyrics by Sammy Cahn, copyright WB Music Corp. / Cahn Music Company and Greenbar Music.
Recorded, mixed, and mastered at Daystar Recording Studio, Starke, FL and Snowdog Studio, Canton, MI. Arranged, produced, and engineered by Alex Coleman and Kristina Austin Scarcelli.
Kristina Austin Scarcelli - Vocals, Jingle Bells
Alex Coleman - Piano, Guitars, Bass and Drums
Listen to Amelita Galli-Curci's version (1917)
Sources: Wikipedia; Ernest L. Abe, "America's Civil War Magazine", May 1996; James I. Robertson, "Civil War Journal" on the History Channel. Images by Thomas Nast for "Harper's Weekly".