Almost 20 times a day at Arlington National Cemetery, a military ritual occurs that is both familiar and moving. An escort of honor comes to attention and presents arms. A firing party conducts a salute of three volleys. After the briefest of moments, a bugle call sounds. The flag held by members of the honor guard is then folded into a triangle reminiscent of a cocked hat from the American Revolution, and presented to the veteran’s next of kin as an expression of gratitude from a grateful nation. Taps is that bugle call. It may be the most performed piece of music in America, played every day in virtually every corner of the country.
Composed for the bugle and unique to the U.S. military, Taps is sounded at funerals, wreath-layings and memorial services. Its plain but haunting melody consists of just 24 notes, and is usually recognized within the first three. With four different tones and lasting less than a minute, Taps has the power to evoke emotion from the most battle-hardened warrior. The military’s only bugle call played slowly throughout, it has the dual purpose of signaling the day’s end and serving as musical honors to servicemembers who have died.
Taps has been open to interpretation and arrangement, from solo renditions to echoed versions to accompanied arrangements and various musical settings, and has had many lyrics set to its melody. Its name comes from the three distinct drum taps also used to signal “lights out.” It is performed by polished military professionals, school band students and volunteers alike at veterans’ funerals.
Like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Taps was born during a war, but its origin has been clouded by competing accounts. Until the Civil War, the infantry bugle call for “lights out” was To Extinguish Lights, found in most U.S. military manuals. Like most infantry calls, Lights was copied note for note from French military manuals. But Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield changed the evening signal music for his brigade in July 1862.
Butterfield felt Lights was too formal to signal day’s end. With the help of brigade bugler Oliver Willcox Norton, he wrote Taps while camping at Harrison’s Landing in Virginia following the Seven Days’ Battles during the Peninsula Campaign.
The account of how Butterfield composed the call surfaced in August 1898 following publication of The 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 was referring to Maj. Truman Seymour, a musician, artist and 1846 West Point graduate who compiled bugle calls for the revised 1874 U.S. Army drill manual written by Maj. Gen. Emory Upton. Since Seymour was responsible for the music in the manual, Kobbé assumed that he had written the call.
Kobbé’s article prompted a letter to the magazine from Norton, who claimed that he knew how the call came about and that he was the first to perform it. Norton wrote in a letter dated Aug. 8 that 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 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,” Norton wrote.
The Century Magazine’s 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 prelude call for his brigade: Dan, Dan, Dan, Butterfield, Butterfield.
Butterfield wrote, “The call of Taps did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be, and I called in someone 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.”
The many articles written about Taps cite this story as the beginning of Butterfield’s association with the call. There are, however, some differences in Butterfield’s and Norton’s versions. Norton says 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.
The roots of Butterfield’s new Taps call are found in an early version of the Tattoo call, used by armies to signal troops to prepare for bedtime roll call. This early Tattoo is found in four manuals, from the Winfield Scott manual of 1835 to the William Gilham manual of 1861. The Scott, or 1835, Tattoo was in use until the 1855, or Hardee, Tattoo came into use just before the Civil War. The Hardee Tattoo was sounded throughout the war, replacing the older Scott Tattoo.
Norton’s conclusion that Butterfield wrote Taps can be explained by the Hardee Tattoo. Norton most likely sounded that call during the war, followed by To Extinguish Lights, the borrowed French call. It is evident that Norton was not familiar with the 1835 Scott Tattoo, or he would immediately have recognized it that night in Butterfield’s tent.
But as a colonel before the war, Butterfield would have been familiar with Scott’s “Tactics,” and if he was using “Tactics” for drills, then it is feasible that he would have known and used the bugle calls as set in the manual. Close examination shows a striking resemblance between the 24 notes of Taps and the last few measures of the Scott Tattoo, and Norton’s statement about Butterfield changing notes suggests that this is exactly what happened to turn the earlier call into Taps.
Interestingly, Butterfield’s brigade prelude call – Dan, Dan, Dan, Butterfield, Butterfield – shares a closeness to Taps evident in its last two measures, which resemble the third measure of Taps.
Several stories purport to tell the origin of Taps. One frequently circulated is that of a Union captain named Ellicombe who found his wounded Confederate son on a battlefield with the music to Taps in the son’s pocket. That tale dates from the late 1940s and is attributed to Robert Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”
The earliest official reference to the mandatory use of Taps at military funerals is found in the “U.S. Army Infantry Drill Regulations” for 1891, although it had doubtless been used unofficially long before that under its former designation, To Extinguish Lights. Its first known use at a funeral occurred during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign for a member of Capt. John C. Tidball’s Battery A, 2nd U.S. Artillery. Since the enemy was close, Tidball realized that it was unsafe to fire the customary volleys and possibly renew the fighting. It occurred to him that the sounding of Taps would be the most appropriate substitute.
That first sounding is commemorated in a stained-glass window in the Chapel of the Centurion at Fort Monroe, Va. The place where Taps was born – Berkeley Plantation, site of Harrison’s Landing – is also commemorated by a monument erected by The American Legion Department of Virginia and dedicated on July 4, 1969. It was recently rededicated to mark the 150th anniversary of the call.
While still sounded every evening at military bases to signal that “day is done,” the notes of Taps have become part of our national conscience. In the words of the bugler Norton, “There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call. Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air.”
Jari Villanueva is the nation’s foremost authority on military bugle calls, particularly Taps. During his 23 years with the U.S. Air Force Band in Washington, he participated in more than 5,000 ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. He is a member of Dewey Lohman American Legion Post 109 in Arbutus, Md.
Learn more about Taps’ history at Villanueva’s website and blog: www.tapsbugler.com