An Essay On My Sweet Home Song

6/12/2006 • America's Civil War, Arts and Culture

A few weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862), about 100,000 Federal soldiers and 70,000 Confederates were camped on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River in Virginia. The battle had been one of the bloodiest of the war so far. More than 12,000 Federals had been killed or wounded; Confederate losses numbered about 5,000. The two sides were still licking their wounds, each entertaining murderous thoughts about the other.

As was customary in camp, at twilight the regimental bands on either side began their evening concerts. When they were bivouacked close together, as they were that night, the opposing bands would sometimes play at the same time, trying to drown each other out. On other occasions they took turns. Often the bands waged a musical contest, each playing their own patriotic tunes with as much panache and enthusiasm as they could muster, making many twilight concerts veritable ‘battles of the bands.’

Toward the end of the evening concerts, the music typically became more poignant and tender. On one particular night, a Federal band was especially melodic in its rendition of the Civil War’s favorite tune. The slow, plaintive notes floated like feathers through the air, gently nestling into homesick hearts. Night was the time when men wrote home to their mothers and sweethearts, or held silent communion with themselves. The soothing notes sent the heartfelt words of the beloved song running through their minds:

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble there’s no place like home!
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there,
Which, seek through the world, is ne’er met with
Home! Home! sweet, sweet Home!
There’s no place like Home!
There’s no place like Home.


Almost as soon as the Union band began playing ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ Confederate bands took up the strain. One after another, every regimental band in both armies joined in. Everyone ceased what they were doing. Pens were put down; books were closed; games of tag stopped; cards drifted to the ground. There wasn’t a sound, except for the music.

Then, in the words of Frank Mixson, a private in the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, ‘Everyone went crazy.’ Mixson had not witnessed anything like it before. Both sides began cheering, jumping up and down and throwing their hats into the air. Mixson had never seen anything to compare with the wild cheering that followed the song’s lingering notes. Had there not been a river between them, reflected Mixson, the two armies would have met face to face, shaken hands, and ended the war on the spot.

Fredericksburg wasn’t the only time ‘Home, Sweet Home’ made Billy Yank and Johnny Reb forget they were enemies. In the summer of 1864, the Confederates under Maj. Gen. Jubal Early were about to confront Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s Federals near Winchester and Martinsburg. Their picket lines were only a few feet apart in some places. As night fell, the pickets began talking to one another. Both sides were exhausted. One of the picket officers called over to the other that he would agree not to fire on their pickets, if the other side would do likewise. This would enable both sides to get a good night’s rest. The bargain was quickly made. But though the pickets wanted desperately to sleep, they could not turn in without their evening’s musical interlude. The Confederate pickets began singing some of their favorite songs. Then it was the Federals’ turn to be on stage. After a while, the sentries on either side lined up and sang ‘Home, Sweet Home’ and went happily to sleep.

On May 10, 1864, Confederates and Federals faced each other at Spotsylvania. To ease the tension, a Confederate band made its way from its usual position in the rear and began playing hymns. As soon as it stopped, a Federal band nearby started in with one of its own hymns. Then came a bout of patriotic songs. When a Confederate band finally launched into the familiar strains of ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ both sides began cheering so loudly that it created a din not heard before in the hills around Spotsylvania.

In the Federal Army, officers eventually forbade their bands to play ‘Home, Sweet Home’ for fear it would make men so homesick they would desert or become too demoralized to fight. But they had nothing to worry about on that score. The song had just the opposite effect. In reminding them of their loved ones, ‘Home, Sweet Home’ reinforced the basic and personal stake each soldier had in fighting for his side. In that sense, the song had a deeper meaning than more overtly patriotic songs, since patriotic songs appealed to general, rather than personal, feelings. The urge to protect one’s home and family is more primitive and therefore more immediate. When Johnny Reb or Billy Yank sang ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ or listened to his regimental band play it, he automatically thought of home and family, and his responsibility to protect them both.

On the eve of the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862), Federal and Confederate soldiers were enjoying their regular nighttime concerts when, as usual, one of the bands closed with ‘Home, Sweet Home.’ Again, both sides joined in, until the night air was filled with the emotional strains of the beloved song.

Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary, were likewise comforted by the heartfelt song when the Italian songstress Adelina Patti sang it to them at the White House in 1862. The Lincoln’s 12-year-old son, Willie, had recently died of typhoid fever, and both parents were in deep mourning. The songstress had been invited to the White House for a private appearance in the hope that she might give them some respite from their grief. Miss Patti went through a repertoire of her best showpieces, ending with one of the saddest songs of the day, ‘The Last Rose of Summer.’ When she was finished, she saw Mrs. Lincoln in tears and the president covering his face with his hands. The songstress instantly sensed that the song had reminded them of their recent loss. Perhaps if she sang a happy song, she thought, she might change their mood. But as she started in, President Lincoln, in a choking voice, asked her to sing ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ the only song that could give them any solace from their grief.

Both the words and music of the song came from an opera, Clari, or The Maid of Milan, which had its debut in London, England, on May 8, 1823. The tune was composed by Henry Bishop (1786-1855), the most famous English composer of the day, but it was the poignant lyrics written by expatriate American author John Howard Payne that made the song an international hit.

Payne was born to William and Sarah Isaacs Payne in New York City on June 9, 1791, the sixth in a family of nine children. One of his cousins was Dolley Payne Madison, wife of President James Madison; another cousin was Robert Treat Paine, one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence.

Although he became one of the best-known personages in America, Payne was often destitute and lived much of his life away from his native land. Many music critics have found the inspiration for Payne’s immortal song in his longing for his early years, which he spent with his family in East Hampton, on Long Island. His father had moved the family to East Hampton when Payne was very young, and that is where Payne spent his earliest and happiest years. Many believe that this is the home he so fondly wrote about many years later.

Payne was a precocious student and began writing poems and stories and acting at an early age. His father, a teacher, did not approve of his writing or acting and got him a job in New York as a clerk, hoping that he would be so busy working that he would not have time for such frivolous activities. But Payne kept writing. And when he was just 14, he began publishing a little weekly periodical, the Thespian Mirror, in which he reviewed plays and wrote theater gossip. His magazine attracted the attention of the editor of the New York Evening Post, who was so surprised to learn it was written and published by a young boy that he arranged
for Payne to attend Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y., all expenses paid. Payne gratefully accepted, but left before graduating to support his family, which had fallen on hard times.

At first, Payne had no trouble finding work as an actor. At 18, he was billed ‘The American Juvenile Wonder.’ Although he was successful between 1810 and 1811, he could not find work on stage afterward, and when his father died, he decided to leave America to see if he could re-establish his thespian career abroad. Despite the War of 1812, he sailed to England that same year. Upon landing, he was thrown in jail as a foreign enemy and held prisoner for two weeks. Although he managed to find a number of acting jobs, he soon realized he would never recapture his earlier acting success and gave up the stage in favor of writing and adapting plays.

Payne was very successful as a playwright but, unable to manage his money, he fell heavily into debt. It was while he was destitute that an English theater manager brought him a play and convinced him to change it into an opera and write a few songs for it. Although he had tasted success and had roamed ‘mid pleasures and palaces,’ at this point in his life, Payne felt very lonely. He missed his homeland and became convinced that ‘be it ever so humble,’ there simply was ‘no place like home.’ He put those feelings into words.

The theater manager then persuaded composer Henry Bishop to set Payne’s words to music. ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ the hit song from the opera, subsequently sold more than 300,000 copies in its first year, and afterward was printed in more editions with more variations than any other song of its time. The music publisher made more than $10,000 from the song, an enormous amount in those days. Payne was paid about $250 for his efforts and never received royalties. His name was not even included on the song sheet.

In 1832, disillusioned and penniless, Payne returned to the United States, where he worked as a journalist in various cities. In Richmond, Va., he fell in love with Maria Mayo, a beautiful and charming Virginia belle. While courteous to Payne, Miss Mayo did not share his romantic feelings, preferring instead the military bearing of the general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, Winfield Scott. It was the last of many stillborn love affairs for Payne.

Payne never recovered from his final bitter disappointment. Although he still appeared publicly, his enthusiasm for life had been sapped. Nevertheless, he remained a celebrity among people in the theater. One night in 1850, Jenny Lind, ‘the Swedish Nightingale,’ was singing in Washington as part of her American tour. President Millard Fillmore, his family and cabinet were in the audience. So were Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and various other dignitaries. Payne was in the audience, as well. ‘Home, Sweet Home’ was one of Lind’s favorites, and just before she started singing, she turned to face Payne and sang it to him. The usually stoic Webster was moved to tears, as was the whole audience. When the song ended, Webster stood up and bowed to Payne; others followed, giving him the greatest ovation of his life.

Although he was not very successful as a journalist, Payne’s fame as the author of ‘Home, Sweet Home’ was enough to get him an appointment as U.S. minister to Tunis in the Tyler administration. In 1852, he died at the age of 61, far from the home and country that had inspired him.

Despite the continued popularity of his song, few people thought about Payne until 1882. That year, a wealthy music lover from Washington, who had seen Payne on the stage many years before, was reminded of the songwriter and felt that the writer of one of America’s best-loved songs deserved to come home. Arrangements were made for Payne’s body to be exhumed. On March 22, 1883, the boat carrying his body arrived in New York. As the casket was brought ashore, a 65-piece band played his immortal song.

Payne’s body lay in state in New York for several days as thousands paid homage. On June 9, 1883, Payne was reburied in Oak Hill Cemetery, just outside Washington, D.C. Taking part in the mile-long cortege were President Chester Arthur, his entire cabinet, members of both houses of Congress, and members of the diplomatic corps. The president of Columbia University gave the eulogy. As the casket was lowered into its final resting place, the Marine Band and the Philharmonic Society Orchestra played Payne’s deathless masterpiece. The author of the Civil War’s most beloved song had finally come home to rest.

This article was written by Ernest L. Abe and originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.

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