The haunting bugle call Taps is 150 years old this summer

By John Keller
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 24 May 2012. This summer marks the 150th anniversary of one of the best-known bugle calls ever -- the haunting tune played at thousands of military funerals every year known as Taps.

The tune first was played during the American Civil War in July 1862 at Harrison's Landing, Va., in the aftermath of a series of disastrous Union defeats at the hands of Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Buglers from all walks of life are marking the 150th anniversary of Taps , including an event earlier this month at Arlington National Cemetery in which many buglers formed to play the melancholy melody together.
Creating the tune were Union Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield and his bugler, Private Oliver W. Norton , of Erie, Pa.

 It was part of normal Army routine to play bugle tune or solo drum tap at the end of the day to signal lights out. Butterfield didn't like the Army's lights-out bugle call at the time, and composed a new tune more to his liking.


Soon after Butterfield first had Norton play the tune in the demoralized Union Army camp in July 1862, buglers from other units picked it up, and before long buglers all over the Army were playing what would become known as Taps at the end of the day.

Until then one common way to signal the end of the Army's day was for a solitary drummer to play three taps on the drum for lights out. Soldiers knew that drum call as taps, and extended the name to Butterfield's new bugle call, which ever since has been known as Taps.

July 1862 at Harrison's landing was a bad place at a bad time for the Union Army. The Union's Peninsula Campaign, which had sought to take the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., had ended in defeat after the Army of the Potomac had been forced to retreat to the safety of Harrison's Landing after a major series of engagements known as the Seven Days Battles.

Defeated, the Union Army was preparing to board ships on its way back to Washington. No one knew the war would last another three years. At Harrison's Landing it was hot and muggy, disease was rampant in the Army ranks, and morale could not have been lower. It was from this that the Taps bugle call emerged.

There is a popular myth, now debunked, that Union Army Capt. Robert Ellicombe at Harrison's Landing heard the moan of a Confederate soldier who lay mortally wounded. Ellicombe, the story goes, crawled through gunfire to pull the wounded soldier to safety. When he reached his own lines, however, the soldier was dead. he discovered a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead.

To his horror, he realized that the dead solder was his own son. In his dead son's pocket he found a series of musical notes written on a piece of paper. A bugler played those notes, the story goes, and that tune was Taps.

Sorry, but not true. That story evidently was concocted in the 20th century by creators of Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Butterfield and Norton are the actual creators of Taps.

 In one of history's ironic twists, Taps is perhaps best known for being played at Arlington National Cemetery at notable funerals like that of slain President John F. Kennedy. Taps was written in the wake of big military victory by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Before the Civil War, the land that is now Arlington National Cemetery was owned by ... guess who? You got it; it was the estate of Robert E. Lee.

Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.
Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.
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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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

December 2013
Volume 24, Issue 12
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