It all began in 1862 during the Civil War, when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison‘s Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land. During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moan of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the field. Not knowing if it was a Union or Confederate soldier, the captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention. Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment. When the captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead. The captain lit a lantern. Suddenly, he caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier. It was his son.
The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, he enlisted in the Confederate Army. The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status. His request was partially granted. The captain had asked if he could have a group of Army band members play a funeral dirge for the son at the funeral. That request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate. Out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him one musician. The captain chose a bugler. He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of his dead son’s uniform. This music was the haunting melody we now know as “Taps” that is used at all military funerals. …
The bugle call was composed by the Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, an American Civil War general who commanded the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division in the V Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Butterfield wrote the tune at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, in July 1862. Taps also replaced “Tattoo“, the French bugle call to signal “lights out.” Butterfield’s bugler, Oliver W. Norton, of Erie, Pennsylvania, was the first to sound the new call. Within months, Taps was used by both Union and Confederate forces. Booth states that the tune is actually a variation of an earlier bugle call known as the Scott Tattoo which was used in the U.S. from 1835 until 1860. Taps concludes many military funerals conducted with honors at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as hundreds of others around the United States. … Taps is sounded during each of the 2,500 military wreath ceremonies conducted at the Tomb of the Unknowns every year, including the ones held on Memorial Day. …
That Daniel Butterfield composed Taps has been sworn to by numerous reputable witnesses including Oliver Norton, the bugler who first performed the tune. … Another, perhaps more historically verifiable, account involves John C. Tidball, a Union artillery captain who during a break in fighting ordered the tune sounded for a deceased soldier in lieu of the more traditional–and much less discreet–three volley tribute.
Taps began as a revision to the signal for Extinguish Lights (Lights Out) at the end of the day. Up until the Civil War, the infantry call for Extinguish Lights was the one set down in Silas Casey’s (1801-1882) Tactics, which had been borrowed from the French. The music for Taps was adapted by Union General Daniel Butterfield for his brigade (Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, and Army of the Potomac) in July, 1862. … As the story goes, General Butterfield was not pleased with the call for Extinguish Lights, feeling that the call was too formal to signal the days end, and with the help of the brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton (1839-1920), wrote Taps to honor his men while in camp at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, following the Seven Days battle. These battles took place during the Peninsular Campaign of 1862. The new call sounded that night in July, 1862, soon spread to other units of the Union Army and was reportedly also used by the Confederates. Taps was made an official bugle call after the war.
“…showing me some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, (he) asked me to sound them on my bugle. I did this several times, playing the music as written. He changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me. After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call for Taps thereafter in place of the regulation call. The music was beautiful on that still summer night and was heard far beyond the limits of our Brigade. The next day I was visited by several buglers from neighboring Brigades, asking for copies of the music which I gladly furnished. The call was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac.”
Fading light dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar drawing nigh — Falls the night.
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
Then good night, peaceful night,
Till the light of the dawn shineth bright;
God is near, do not fear — Friend, good night.
A special thanks to Richard Hupf, US Coast Guard, retired, for your long service to the United States of America.
Except at funerals, buglers, someone from a military band, with traditional rifle squad salute, Taps is not sounded by a bugler who no longer is part of the Army structural command. Posts that still continue the tradition of lights out, play Taps from a recording played over a loudspeaker system.
In my professional career, as a young soldier, Taps was played each evening at lights out over the loudspeaker system from the orderly room at training camps. It is a soothing and sweet sound, but a haunting and sad melody. [Photo left: Andrew Sisters, Boogie-Woogie Bugle]