“Taps” Originated during the Civil War

The museum has received a copy of “Taps” that tells the story of the simple bugle call consisting of only 24 notes. This bugle call has been a source of comfort to many — from Boy Scouts on field trips to men and women serving our country in foreign lands and to those who have lost loved ones.

Photo of Eloise Lane

Eloise Lane

Author Richard H. Schneider, a veteran of ~J II, is senior editor and writer for Guideposts magazine. After hearing “Taps” many times at funerals following the terrorists’ attacks on September 11, 2001, he began to search for the origin of the bugle call. It was first played on a hot July night in 1862 when 140,000 Union soldiers were encamped in soggy mud at Harrison’s Landing on the Berkeley Plantation in southern Virginia. These men had been a part of the Union’s Army of the Potomac commanded by General George B. McClellan (for whom McClellan Creek was named). McClellan had expected to take Richmond (the Confederate capital) and end the Civil War quickly.

But the Union forces had been repelled by the Confederate forces of General Robert E. Lee and had retreated to the protection of the Union gunboats at Harrison’s Landing. Brigadier General Daniel Adams Butterfield, a scholarly thirty-one-year-old former law student from Utica, New York, was deeply concerned about his wounded and dying men. Sitting on a chair outside the tent where he camped, he sent for his bugler, Private Oliver Willcox Norton, and asked Norton to play some notes written in pencil on the back of an envelope.

Butterfield changed the length of some of the notes and when he was satisfied with the result, instructed Norton to play the new bugle call instead of the regulation call for “extinguish lights.” (The regulation call, “Tattoo,” was a derivation of the Dutch “Tap Toe,” a drum beat signaling tavern keepers to close their taps so that soldiers would return to their barracks. The melody of “Taps” is similar to the last five and a quarter bars of what was known as the “Scott Tattoo.”) The bugle call played by Norton on that hot July night was beautiful and reached far beyond the limits of Butterfield’s brigade. The next day buglers from other brigades asked Norton for copies of the music and the bugle call began to spread throughout the Union and beyond.

There is a report that it was played ten months later at the funeral service for Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. For a time the melody was known as “Butterfield’s Lullaby.” “Taps” was first played at a military funeral after a Confederate shell exploded and killed a Union cannoneer, traditionally, three volleys were fired over the grave, but the Union captain feared that the sound of rifle fire so close would cause the Confederates to believe that the Union was advancing to renew fighting. Then the captain thought of the new call recently sounded by Butterfield’s bugler, and the strains of “Taps” sounded over the grave of a soldier for the first time in history. An early reference to the official use of “Taps” can be found in the U. S. Army Infantry Drill Regulation for 1891.

The story of `Taps” is summarized on a marker at Harrison’s Landing and the sound of the bugle call can be heard when a button is pressed. The first sounding of “Taps” at a soldier’s funeral is memorialized in a beautiful stained-glass window in a chapel at Fort Monroe, Virginia. The bugle has limited notes — C, E, and G and G an octave lower are used in “Taps.” A trumpet may be used — and sometimes is — to play a bugle call, but a trumpet can play many notes that a bugle cannot. During WW II some bugles were made of olive colored tenite, a product of Eastman Kodak. A bugler explained that a tenite bugle is two pounds lighter than brass it can withstand extreme temperatures it is almost indestructible and — it does not have to be polished.

Various writers have alluded to “Taps:” Mark Twain (~ Horse’s Ta1e”~. Willie Morris (“Taps”), James Joyce (“From Hereto Eternity”), F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Taps at Reveille”),~esse Stuart (” Taps for Private Tussie”). Traditionally, bugle calls do not have words, but the touching melody of “Taps” has inspired many lyrics. Oddly, none of these lyrics have been ascribed to any particular author. The best known verse is this: “Day is done, gone the sun From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, Safely rest, God is nigh.”

Over 200 Articles, written by Eloise Lane, were published in the Pampa News. These articles may be accessed by clicking on each section below. A list of articles will be revealed that are linked to a page containing the text of the article.

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