An American Tradition: The Story Of How Taps Was Created
By Jari Villanueva
(April 2012 Civil War News)
TAPS 150 will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the origin of Taps, the national bugle call, this spring. TAPS 150, along with Bugles Across America, the national organization that provides live buglers at funerals, is planning concerts and events that will culminate with ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery on May 19 and a June reenactment.
Focal point of the June 22-24 event at Berkeley Plantation, Charles City, Va., where Taps was born, will be the rededication of the Taps monument which is undergoing renovations this spring. A fall wreath-laying ceremony is planned at the West Point grave of Maj. Gen. Daniel A. Butterfield, who many credit as composing Taps.
Almost 20 times on any weekday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, a military ritual occurs that is both familiar and moving. An escort of honor comes to attention and presents arms. A firing party then fires a salute of three volleys.
After the briefest of moments, a bugler sounds the 24 notes of America’s most famous bugle call. The flag held by members of the military honor guard is then folded into a triangle reminiscent of the cocked hat from the American Revolution and presented to the next of kin as an expression of gratitude from a grateful nation.
The playing of Taps is unique to the United States military, since the call is sounded at funerals, wreath-laying and memorial services. The melody is both eloquent and haunting.
Up until the Civil War, the infantry call for lights out was To Extinguish Lights, which was set down in Silas Casey’s Tactics and other military manuals. Like most of the bugle calls in the manual, it was taken note for note from French military manuals. General Butterfield changed the music of this evening call for his Third Brigade in the First Division, 5th Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, in July 1862.
As the story goes, Butterfield felt the lights-out call was too formal to signal the day’s end. With the help of brigade bugler Oliver Willcox Norton, Butterfield wrote Taps while in camp at Harrison’s Landing following the Seven Days Battles of the Peninsula Campaign.
The call that sounded that July night soon spread to other Union army units. A reference that Taps was used by the Confederate Army is found in Mounted Artillery Drill by R. Snowden Andrews (1863, Charleston, S.C.). On page 158 it states, “Taps will be blown at nine O’clock, at which time all officers and all enlisted men must be in quarters.”
The account of how Butterfield composed the call surfaced in August 1898 following publication of Century Magazine’s article “The Trumpet in Camp and Battle” by Gustav Kobbé, a music historian and critic. He wrote of Taps: “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.”
Kobbé used Maj. Gen. Emory Upton’s 1874 U.S. Army drill manual on infantry tactics as an authority. The bugle calls in it were compiled by Maj. Truman Seymour of the 5th U.S. Artillery, an 1846 West Point graduate who was a musician and artist.
Taps was called Extinguish Lights in the manual since it was to replace the call for lights out Butterfield did not like. The title was not changed officially until 1891, although other manuals referred to the call as Taps because most soldiers knew it by that name. Since Seymour was responsible for the music in the Army manual, Kobbé assumed that he had written the call.
Kobbé’s article prompted a letter to the magazine from bugler Norton, who claimed he knew how the call came about and that he was the first to perform it.
In a letter dated Aug. 8 Norton said he was the bugler at Butterfield’s brigade headquarters at Harrison’s Landing, Butterfield sent for Norton, “… 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.”
Butterfield directed Norton to sound that call for Taps thereafter in place of the regulation call. The next day buglers from neighboring brigades, who heard it, asked for copies of the music.
“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,” wrote Norton. It spread west with the 11th and 12th Corps, in the fall of 1863.
The Century editor wrote to Butterfield who in an Aug. 31 reply recalled “the substantial truth of the statement made by Norton.”
Butterfield said he could sound bugle calls “as a necessary part of military knowledge and instruction for an officer commanding a regiment or brigade.” He had even composed a call for his brigade, to be sounded before all other calls.
“I cannot write a note of music, but have gotten my wife to write it from my whistling it to her, and enclose it,” Butterfield wrote. “The men would sing, ‘Dan, Dan, Dan, Butterfield, Butterfield’ to the notes when a call came. Later, in battle, or in some trying circumstances or an advance of difficulties, they sometimes sang, ‘Damn, Damn, Damn, Butterfield, Butterfield,’”
Butterfield said, “The call of Taps did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be.” He called in someone who could write music and practiced a change until it suited his ear. He added that he did not recall Norton in connection with Taps.
On the surface, this seems to be the true history of Taps. Many articles written about Taps cite this story as the beginning of Butterfield’s association with the call.
There are, however, significant differences in Butterfield and Norton’s versions. Norton said the music given to him by Butterfield was written 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.
We can see that Taps existed in an early version of the call Tattoo used by armies to signal troops to prepare for bedtime roll call. This early version is found in four manuals dating from the Winfield Scott manual of 1835 to the William Gilham manual of 1861.
The Scott, or 1835, Tattoo was in use until 1861. A second version of Tattoo, which I call the 1855, or Hardee, Tattoo, came into use just before the Civil War and was sounded throughout the war, replacing the Scott Tattoo.
Norton’s conclusion that Butterfield wrote Taps can be explained by the presence of the 1855 Tattoo. Most likely Norton sounded it during the war followed by To Extinguish Lights, the French call borrowed by Casey.
It is evident that Norton did not know the 1835 Scott Tattoo or he would have immediately recognized it that evening in Butterfield’s tent.
If you compare Norton’s statement about Butterfield changing notes while looking at the present-day Taps, you will see that this is exactly what happened to turn the early Tattoo into Taps.
As a colonel before the war Butterfield would have been familiar with Scott’s Tactics, which includes the bugle calls 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 the manual.
Butterfield also mentioned a special call he wrote for his brigade. Its closeness to the call of Taps is evident in the last two measures, which resemble the third measure of Taps.
Lastly, it is hard to believe that Butterfield could have composed anything that July in the aftermath of the Seven Days Battles, which saw the Army of the Potomac mangled by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Butterfield lost over 600 of his men on June 27 at the battle of Gaines’ Mill and was himself wounded. In the midst of the heat, humidity, mud, mosquitoes, dysentery, typhoid and general wretchedness of camp life that early July, it is hard to imagine being able to write anything.
Rather, he revised or arranged an earlier call into the present-day bugle call we know as Taps.
There are myths associated with the birth of Taps. The best-known is the story of a Union Captain Ellicombe who finds his wounded Confederate son on a battlefield with the music of Taps in the son’s pocket. That tale dates from the late 1940s and is attributed to Robert Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe or Not!”
When did Taps become associated with military funerals? The earliest official reference to the mandatory use of the call at such ceremonies is found in the U.S. Army Infantry Drill Regulations for 1891, although it had doubtless been used unofficially long before that time, under its former designation Extinguish Lights.
The practice of firing three volleys may have originated in the old custom of halting the fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army had cleared its dead, it would fire three volleys to indicate the army was ready to resume the fight. The tradition of firing the three volleys at funerals was noted in regulations and manuals.
The first use of Taps at a funeral occurred during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign for a member of Capt. John C. Tidball’s Battery A, 2nd United States Artillery. The battery occupied an advanced position, concealed in the woods. Since the enemy was close, Tidball realized that it was unsafe to fire the customary volleys and possibly renew fighting. It occurred to him that the sounding of Taps would be the most appropriate ceremony to use as a substitute.
This first sounding of Taps at a military funeral is commemorated in a stained-glass window at The Chapel of the Centurion, The Old Post Chapel, at Fort Monroe, Virginia. The site where Taps was born is also commemorated by a monument at Berkeley Plantation, which was erected by the Virginia American Legion and dedicated on July 4, 1969.
While still sounded every evening at military bases to signal Day is Done, the notes of Taps have become part of our national conscience. In times of peace and war the 24 notes of this familiar melody have been performed each day in virtually every part of our nation.
For more information about Taps, Daniel Butterfield and Oliver Willcox Norton please visit www.Tapsbugler.com. For information about the upcoming Taps 150 commemorations, see www.Taps150.org
Jari Villanueva retired from the U.S. Air Force after serving 23 years as a military bugler at Arlington National Cemetery. He is considered the country’s foremost authority on military bugle calls and Taps. He wrote Twenty-Four Notes That Tap Deep Emotions-The Story of America’s Most Famous Bugle Call.
Villanueva is Director of the Maryland National Guard Honor Guard and Commander of the Maryland Defense Force Band. He has been a Civil War reenactor since 1998 and directs the Federal City Brass Band.