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The origin of TAPS

  • Of all the military bugle calls, none is so easily recognized or
  • more apt to render emotion than the call Taps. The melody is both eloquent and haunting, land the history of its origin in interesting and somewhat clouded. The use of Taps is unique to the United States military, since the call is sounded at funerals, wreath-laying, and memorial services.

Taps began as a revision to the signal for Extinguish Lights at the end of the day. Up until the Civil War, the infantry call for Extinguish Lights was one which had been borrowed from the French. In July of 1862, the music for Taps was adapted by Union General Daniel Butterfield for his brigade (Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac).

General Daniel Adams Butterfield was the eastern superintendent of the American Express Company in New York

when the Civil War broke out. Despite his lack of military

experience, he quickly rose in rank. A Colonel in the 12th

Regiment of the New York State Militia, he was promoted to Brigadier General and was given command of a brigade of the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Years later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Battle of Gaines Mill.

General Butterfield was not pleased with the call for Extinguish Lights, feeling the call was too formal, and with the help of the brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, he wrote Taps to honor his men while in camp at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, following the Seven Days battle. The call, sounded on that night in July 1862, son spread to other units of the Union Army and was even used by the Confederates. Taps was made an official bugle call after the war. Taps was called "Extinguish Lights" in the official Army drill manual on infantry tactics, and although it replaced the "Lights Out" call Butterfield disliked, its title was not changed until later, although other manuals started calling it Taps because most soldiers knew it by that name.

When asked about Taps, the bugler, Oliver Norton, said, "General Butterfield sent for me and showed me some notes

written on a staff on the back of an envelope. He asked me to play them on my bugle, which I did. He changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others. After he was satisfied, he directed me to sound Taps thereafter in place of the regular call. The music was heard far beyond the limits of our camp, and I was visited the next day by several buglers who asked for the music, which I gave them. The call was gradually taken up throughout the entire Army of the Potomac.

There are a variety of stories about the origin of Taps. Research shows that Butterfield did not actually write Taps, but as an officer who had to be thoroughly familiar with the bugle calls of the Regiment, he actually revised an earlier bugle call. The fact is that Taps existed in an earlier version of the call Tattoo, used to signal troops to prepare for bedtime roll call. This fact is not meant to take credit away from the General, but to put things in correct historic perspective.

How did Taps become associated with funerals? The
earliest official reference to Taps
at military funeral ceremonies is found in the U.S. Army Infantry Drill Regulations for 1891, although it had been used unofficially long before this time.

We must recognize that other stories about the origin of Taps exist. One popular story is about a Northern boy who was killed fighting for the South. According to the story, his father, a Captain in the Union Army, found his son's body on the battlefield with the notes to Taps in the pocket of his Confederate uniform. When the Union general who commanded the father heard the story, he ordered the notes played at the boy's funeral. That's a great story, but there is no evidence to prove the story or the existence of the father.

As soon as Taps was sounded in July of 1862, words were put to the music. Here are some of the more popular verses:

Day is done, gone the sun, From the hills, from the lake, From the sky.

All is well, safely rest,

God is high.

Go to sleep, peaceful sleep, May the soldier or sailor, God keep.

On the land or the deep, Safe in sleep.

Love, good night, Must thou go, When the day, And the night Need thee so?

All is well. Speedeth all

To their rest.

Fades the light; And afar Goeth day, And the stars Shineth bright,

Fare thee well: Day has gone, Night is on.

Thanks and praise, For our days, `Neath the sun, `Neath the stars, `Neath the sky,

As we go, This we know,

God is nigh.


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