This weekend, Virginia's historic Berkeley Plantation will host a series of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of Taps, the national bugle call sounded at flag lowerings, military funerals and memorial services.
The highlight of the three-day celebration will be Saturday's rededication of the Taps monument, constructed and given to the state by the Department of Virginia American Legion in 1969.
The monument stands on the military campsite where Taps was first sounded in July 1862, when Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield enlisted the help of his bugler, Oliver Norton, in composing a new bugle call for his men. Wanting a less formal and more distinctive melody, he adapted an earlier bugle call used to signal "lights out." The somber notes are said to reflect Butterfield's sadness following the Battle of Gaines' Mill, during which 602 of his men were killed or wounded.
"It's a uniquely American bugle call, a piece of music you can recognize within the first three notes," says Jari Villanueva, Taps historian and bugler. "It's transcended the military. Many people recall hearing it at summer camp as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, or when they've attended a funeral for a loved one who served in the military. When they hear the call, they'll remember something that was very important to them."
TAPS 150, the organization sponsoring the Berkeley event, raised money for a renovation of the Taps monument and landscaping. In April, a speaker system was installed that will play an audio presentation of the bugle call's history, and a recording of Villanueva sounding Taps on a Civil War bugle.
Villanueva first learned to play Taps as a Boy Scout bugler. He studied at Kent University and the Peabody Conservatory before joining the U.S. Air Force Band. He spent 23 years sounding Taps at Arlington National Cemetery and, as the author of the booklet "Twenty-Four Notes That Tap Deep Emotions: The History of America's Most Famous Bugle Call," he's considered the nation's foremost authority on Taps.
"This has been a love of mine ever since I can remember," says Villanueva, a member of Dewey Lohman American Legion Post 109 in Arbutus, Md. "Playing it every day, I became very familiar with that piece of music, and that led me to want to know more about it."
The Berkeley weekend is expected to draw thousands of visitors. Attractions include the Virginia Civil War HistoryMobile, a Civil War re-enactment, performances by the Federal City Brass Band, and tours of the Berkeley Mansion, built in 1726.
"It's going to be a wonderful weekend of music and history," Villanueva says.
Butterfield's and Norton's descendants are expected to attend, along with Lou Madonia, the Marine bugler who sounded Taps at the 100th anniversary celebration in 1962.
Villanueva says that Taps' 150th year would be made especially meaningful with official recognition by Congress. The House's defense authorization bill contains a provision sought by Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., designating Taps as the national song of remembrance.
"Taps isn't really recognized," Villanueva says. "It's not even considered a piece of music. It's considered a bugle call. So when people write about it, they don't even use a capital T. I'm hoping to get it a capital T."
On May 19, nearly 200 buglers and trumpeters from across the country assembled at Arlington to sound Taps in a collective anniversary tribute. And on June 3 – in an event sponsored by TAPS 150, Buglers Across America and the 20th Century Limited Drum and Bugle Corps – buglers sounded Echo Taps across the Walkway Over the Hudson, from Poughkeepsie to Highland.