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Click to play TAPS ( Membership CD ROM only)
 

The Story behind
The Story Behind Taps

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.

In case you are interested, these are the words to "Taps":

"Day is done,
Gone the sun,
From the lakes,
From the hills,
From the sky.
All is well.
Safely rest.
God is nigh.

Fading light,
Dims the sight,
And a star,
Gems the sky,
Gleaming bright .
From afar,
Drawing nigh,
Falls the night.

Then good night,
peaceful night,
till the light
of the dawn,
Shineth bright;
God is near,
Do not fear,
Friend, goodnight."

 

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No. 75 MAY 4, 1942 The Navy Department today issued the following communique, based on reports received up to 3 p. m.: Far East. 1. As a result of enemy bombing attacks during the past few days, the U. S. S. Mindanao, a river gunboat, has been sunk in the vicinity of Corregidor. 2. There were no casualties to personnel. 3. There is nothing to report from other areas.

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Click to play TAPS ( Membership CD ROM only)

"another look at taps"

by Jari A Villanueva 1

Of all the military bugle calls, none is so easily recognizable or more apt to render emotion than the call Taps. The melody is both eloquent and haunting and the history of it's origin is interesting and somewhat clouded in controversy. In the British Army, a similar call known as "Last Post" has been sounded over soldier's graves after interment since 1885. But the use of Taps is unique with the United States military, since the call is sounded at funerals, wreath layings and memorial services.

Up to the Civil War, the infantry call for "Lights Out" was that set down in Silas Casey's (1801 1882) Tactics, which had been borrowed from the French. The music for Taps was changed by Union General Daniel Butterfield for his Brigade (Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac) in July 1862.

Daniel Adams Butterfield (1831-1901), the son of a famous expressman was born in Utica, New York and graduated from Union College at Schenectady. He was the eastern superintendent of the American Express Company in New York when the Civil War broke out. A colonel in the 12th Regiment of the New York State Militia, he was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of a brigade when the militia was mustered into the Army of the Potomac. As the story goes, General Butterfield was not pleased with the call for "Lights Out", feeling that the call was too formal to signal the day's end. With the help of the brigade bugler (Oliver W Norton) Butterfield created the call to honor his men while in camp at Harrison's Landing, Virginia following the Seven Day's battle. The call, sounded that night in July, 1862, soon spread to other units of the Union Army and was even used by the Confederates. It was made an Official bugle call after the war. The highly romantic account of how Butterfield "composed" the call surfaced in 1898 following a magazine article written that summer. The August, 1898 issue of Century Magazine contained an article called "The Trumpet in Camp and Battle" by Gustav Kobbe, a music historian and critic. He was writing about the origin of bugle calls in the Civil War and in reference to Taps, wrote: "In speaking of our trumpet calls I purposely omitted one with which it seemed most appropriate to close this article, for it is the call which closes the soldiers.... "Lights Out".

I have not been able to trace this call to any other service. If it seems probable, it was original with Major Seymour, he has given our army the most beautiful of all trumpet calls".

Kobbe was using as his basis for the calls the army drill manual on infantry tactics prepared by Major General Emory Upton in 1867 (revised in1874) The bugle calls in the manual were compiled by Major (later General) Truman Seymour of the 5th US Artillery.

Kobbe's inability to find the origin of "Light's Out" (Taps) prompted a letter from Oliver W Norton in Chicago who claimed he knew how the call came about and that he was the first to perform it.

Norton wrote:...

"During the early part of the Civil War, I was bugler at the Headquarters of Butterfield's Brigade, Meroll's Division, Fitz-John Porter's Corps, Army of the Potomac. Up to July, 1862, the infantry call for Taps was that set down in Casey's Tactics, which Mr Kobbe says was borrowed from the French. One day, soon after the seven days' battles on the Peninsular, when the Army of the Potomac was lying in camp at Harrison's Landing, General Daniel Butterfield. then commanding our Brigade, sent for me, and showing me some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, 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 next day I was visited by several buglers from neighboring brigades, asking for copies of the music, which I gladly furnished. I think no general order was issued from army headquarters authorizing the substitution of this for the regulation call, but as each brigade commander exercised his own discretion in such minor matters, the call was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac. ... I did not presume to question General Butterfield at the tine, but from the manner in which the call was given to me, I have no doubt he composed it in his tent at Harrison's Landing. I think General Butterfield is living at Cold Spring, New York. If you think the matter of sufficient interest, and care to write him on the subject, I have no doubt he will confirm my statement."

The editor at the Century did contact Butterfield who wrote back;  

"I recall, in my dim memory, the substantial truth of the statement made by Norton, of the 83rd Pa., about bugle calls. His letter gives the impression that I personally wrote the notes for the call. The facts are, that at that time I could sound calls on the bugle as a necessary part of military knowledge and instruction for an officer commanding a regiment or brigade. I had acquired this as a regimental commander. ... The call of Taps did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be, and I called in some one who could write music, and practiced a change in the call of Taps until I had it suit my ear, and then, as Norton writes, got it to my taste without being able to write music or knowing the technical name of any note, but, simply by ear, arranged it as Norton describes. I did not recall him in connection with it, but his story is substantially correct..."

On the surface it was not until the Century article that this seems to be the true history of the origin of Taps. Indeed, the many articles written about Taps cite this story as the beginning of Butterfield's association with the call. Certainly Butterfield never went out of his way to claim credit for its composition and it was not until the Century article that the Origin came to light There are however, significant differences in Butterfield's and Norton's stories. Norton says that the music given to him by Butterfield that night was written down on an envelope while Butterfield wrote that he could not read or write music!  Also Butterfield's words seem to suggest that he was not composing a melody in Norton's presence, but actually arranging or revising an existing one. As a commander of a brigade, he knew of the bugle calls needed to relay troop commands. All officers of the time were required to know the calls and were expected to be able to play the bugle. Butterfield was no different - he could play the bugle but could not read music. As a colonel of the 12th N.Y. Regiment, before the war, he had ordered his men to be thoroughly familiar with calls and drills.  What could account for the variation in stories? My research shows that Butterfield did not compose Taps but actually revised an earlier bugle call.

This sounds blasphemous to many, but the fact is that Taps existed in an early version of the call Tattoo. As a signal for end of the day, armies have used Tattoo to signal troops to prepare them for bedtime roll call. The call was used to notify the soldiers to cease the evening's drinking and return to their garrisons. It was sounded an hour before the final call of the day to extinguish all fires and lights. This early version is found in three drill and tactical manuals - the Winfield Scott (1786-1866) manual of 1835, the Samuel Cooper (1798-1876) manual of 1836 and the William Gilham (1819-1872) manual of 1861.  

Prior to the Civil War, two versions of Tattoo were used - the early one which was probably used from 1835-1861 and a second one that was used during the Civil War. Neither of these two Tattoos is in anyway similar to the present day Tattoo.

The last five measures of the early Tattoo very closely resembles our present day Taps. As mentioned above, many calls were adopted from the French and it is possible that it may have come from Europe. The original "lights out" came from the French call "Extinction des Feux". This call makes up the first eight measures of our present day call of Tattoo. The last twenty measures of the present day Tattoo come from the British call "First Post".

The fact that Norton says that Butterfield "composed Taps cannot be questioned. He was relaying the facts as he remembered them." His conclusion that Butterfield wrote Taps can be explained by the presence of the second Tattoo. It was most likely that the second Tattoo, followed by "Extinguish Lights" (the first eight measures of today's Tattoo), was sounded by Norton during the course of the war. It seems possible that these two calls were sounded to end the soldier's day on both sides during the war. It must therefore be evident that Norton did not know the early Tattoo or he would have immediately recognized it that evening in Butterfield's tent. If you review the events of that evening, Norton came into Butterfield's tent and played notes that were already written down on an envelope. Then Butterfield "changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me." If you compare that statement while looking at the present days Taps you will see that this is exactly what happened to turn the early Tattoo in Taps. If Norton didn't know the early Tattoo, how would Butterfield have known it? Butterfield as stated above, was a colonel before the war and in General Order No.1 issued by him on December 1859 had written:

"The officers and non-commissioned Officers are expected to he thoroughly familiar with the first thirty pages, Vol. 1, Scott's Tactics, and ready to answer any questions in regard to the same previous to the drill above ordered".

Scott's Tactics has bugle calls including the early Tattoo that Butterfield must have known and used. If Butterfield was using Scott's Tactics for drills- then it is feasible that he would have used the calls as set in that manual.

Lastly, it is hard to believe that Butterfield could have composed anything given the situation of that July. It was after the Seven Days battles that saw the Union Army of the Potomac mangled by Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Over twenty six thousand casualties were suffered on both sides. Butterfield had lost 600 of his men on June 27th at the battle of Gaines Mill and had himself been wounded. In the midst of the heat, humidity, mud, mosquitoes, dysentery, typhoid and general wretchedness of camp life in that early July, it is certainly hard to imagine being able to write anything. In the interest of historical accuracy, it should he noted that it is not General Butterfield who composed Taps, rather that he revised an earlier call into the present day bugle call we know as Taps. This is not meant to take credit away from him or deride the man as an officer. It is only to put things in a correct historic manner.

How did it become associated with funerals? The earliest official reference to the mandatory use of Taps at military funeral ceremonies is found in the U.S. Army Drill Regulations for 1891, although it had doubtless been used unofficially long before that time, under it's former designation "Extinguish Lights".

The first use of Taps at a funeral probably occurred during the 1862 peninsular Campaign in Virginia. Captain John C. Tidball of Battery A, 2nd Artillery, ordered it played for the burial of a cannoneer killed in action. Since the enemy was close he worried that the traditional 3 volleys would renew fighting. Colonel James A. Moss writing in an Officer's Manual in 1913 wrote:

"...a soldier of Tidball's Battery - 'A' of the 2nd Artillery - was buried at a time when the battery occupied an advanced position, concealed in the woods. It was unsafe to fire the customary three volley's over the grave, on account of the proximity of the enemy, and it occurred to Captain Tidball that the sounding of Taps would be the most appropriate ceremony that could he substituted. The custom, thus originated, was taken up throughout the Army of the Potomac, and finally confirmed by orders."

Jari A Villanueva

 

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 4TAPS (Music in a *.WAV file- MEMBERS CD ONLY)  - Recording of TAPS played by Master Sergeant Jari A. Villanueva at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Arlington National Cemetery, for over sixteen years.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

The Author of the authoritative article is Jari A. Villanueva, a Master Sergeant in the United States Air Force Band at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington D.C. He plays 'Taps' each day at the shrine to the unknown soldier as part of his musical duties at Arlington National Cemetery.  A graduate of Peabody Conservatory and Kent State University, he is currently doing research on what will hopefully result in a work entitled "Day is Done... The History of Bugle Calls in The United States With Particular Attention To Taps." He's was co-ordinator of an exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery focusing on Bugles and 'Taps', and is looking for any items which can illustrate the history of either of these military institutions. A visit to Jari's Website HISTORY OF TAPS is recommended.

The links to the recording of TAPS on this page operate only on the MEMBERSHIP CD ROM.  A recording of TAPS can be obtained from the website of the Arlington National Cemetery,

Jari A. Villanueva 1999
Reproduced by permission of the author
All rights reserved