For more than a century, "Taps" has been the bugle call to mark the day's end and evening rest in the U.S. military. Its soothing 24 notes have comforted many when played as a final farewell to a former soldier laid to rest. Given its long history, it's not surprising that it is the subject of many legends.
Birth of "Taps"
By the Civil War, bugle calls existed for all types of commands-from "Time to get up!" to "Wear your overcoat today!" or "If you're sick, now's the time for sick call!" But it was during the Civil War's Peninsula Campaign in July 1862 that "Taps" became the bugle call command to extinguish all lights and fires and prepare for sleep. Historians agree on when and where "Taps" was first played, but there's more than one version of the story surrounding its origin and composer. (Image credit: Flickr user yark64)
Believe It Or Not
One popular story says that the man who first ordered "Taps" played was Union Captain Robert Ellicombe. While encamped with the Army of the Potomac at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, Ellicombe risked enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. When the captain lit a lantern, he realized that the young man was dead, and a Confederate soldier, but even more shocking-the young man was his own son. Inside the soldier's pocket was a musical score. Ellicombe requested that a bugler play his son's composition at the burial, and that was when the Army of the Potomac first heard the somber music of "Taps".
The country's foremost authority on the tune as well as the former curator of Arlington National Cemetery's "Taps" Bugle Exhibit, Jari A. Villanueva, researched the story and found no record of any Captain Ellicombe in the Union Army or at Harrison's Landing. What Villanueva did find was an episode of Ripley's Believe It Or Not television show where the tragic tale of a Union father and a Confederate son first aired.
The true history of the birth of "Taps" was told by bugler Oliver Norton in an 1898 letter he wrote in response to a Century Magazine article that claimed the origin of the tune was unknown. Norton explained that he knew how "Taps" originated because he'd been the first to play it.
According to Norton, one July evening he was called to the tent of Major General Daniel Adam Butterfield, the chief of staff for the Army of the Potomac. Encamped at Harrison's Landing, recovering from a defeat at the hands of General Robert E. Lee's army, Butterfield's exhausted and wounded soldiers suffered from heat, mosquitos, dysentery, and typhoid. The standard bugle call for lights-out had a harsh military cadence, and Butterfield thought a more soothing bugle call might help his men rest. (Image credit: Civil War Librarian)
The general handed Norton an envelope with musical notes written on the back and asked the bugler to play them. The bugler lengthened some notes and shortened others until the sound was melodious and slow enough to suit Butterfield, who ordered the melody played every evening at the final bugle call. Century's editors wrote to Butterfield, who confirmed the incident.
Last Call, Boys!
General Butterfield didn't actually compose the tune, sometimes called "Butterfield's Lullaby", but had simply revised an early French version of the "Scott Tattoo". (A tattoo was a bugle call used to order soldiers to leave a tavern and return to their quarters for the night.) The name "Taps" probably came from an obsolete drum roll command called "Taptoe" that ordered tavern keepers to turn off their keg spigots at the end of an evening.
A Smash Hit
From the first night he played it, Norton knew that "Taps" would be a hit. In his letter to the magazine he wrote, "The music was beautiful on that still summer night, and was heard far beyond the limits of our Brigade. The next day I was visited by several buglers from neighboring Brigades, asking for copies of the music, which I gladly furnished."
"Taps" wasn't just a Union favorite. Confederates heard the tune in their nearby camps and liked it so much that by 1863 the Confederate army's mounted artillery drill manual contained the order that "'Taps' will be blown at 9:00 at which time all officers will be in quarters."
The Last Goodbye
(Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, from the Flickr stream of Beverly & Pack)
"Taps" was first used for military funeral services out of necessity. In 1862 Captain John Tidball presided over the burial of one of his fallen men. Tradition ordered that three rifle volleys would be fired at the ceremony, but Tidball's troops were hidden in the woods, and he feared that any nearby enemy would hear the gunshots, figure out their location, and then attack them in the belief that there was a resumption of hostilities. To substitute for the rifle volley, the captain ordered the bugler to sound "Taps".Playing "Taps" became an unofficial custom at Union army funerals. The rebels also played the call to honor fallen soldiers-most notably at the 1863 funeral of General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson after his death by friendly fire in the Battle of Chancellorsville.
After the Civil War, "Taps" became an official bugle call of the U.S. Army, and by 1891 an official order in the U.S. Army Infantry Drill Regulations made the bugle call mandatory at formal military funerals and memorial ceremonies.
A Fallen President
Possibly the most memorable rendition of "Taps" was played on November 25th, 1963, at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. A World War II veteran, Kennedy was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. At the ceremony, the command for present arms was given, and the traditional three volleys were fired. Then Sergeant Keith Clark of the U.S. Army Band played "Taps"-not on a bugle but on a B-flat trumpet.
Clark had played the call perfectly hundreds of times at hundreds of ceremonies. In fact, he'd played it in President Kennedy's presence only two weeks earlier at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Veteran's Day. But this time, as he played, he "cracked" the sixth note so that it sounded shortened and off-key. Clark admitted that nervousness was the cause, but the media immediately assumed that the cracked note was intentional, and they found it especially poignant.
Newsweek described the broken note as "a tear". William manchester, author of Death of a President, described it as a "cactch in your voice or a swiftly stifled sob." For about two weeks following the presidential burial, other Arlington buglers missed that same sixth note.
__________The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.
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