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Two versions of how taps came to be.   If you served in the military you can believe both but the second version is said to a myth.  See the e-mail below sent to me 23 November 2000


ONE:  Major General Daniel Butterfield who commanded a brigade in the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsular Campaign of 1862. After a particularly hard fighting day as the weary troops settled down for the night along the James River near Richmond Virginia, the bugler sounded "Extinguish Lights" or what is more commonly called "Lights Out". On this night Butterfield felt that this bugle call was not as smooth, melodious, and musical as it should be. He felt that the day's final call should bring comfort and peace to tired troubled men. With the help of his bugler, Oliver W. Norton, Butterfield composed the music to what we know today as TAPS.

Later in the Peninsular Campaign a funeral was being held during a lull in the fighting. The bugler was ordered to play TAPS in place of the three volleys usually used to render the final honors to a deceased comrade. This was done because it was feared that rifle fire might cause the enemy to renew their attack. The playing of TAPS was eventually written into Army regulations as a part of the honors to be paid at a military funeral.

TWO:  It began in 1862, during the Civil War, when a Union Army Captain, Robert Ellicombe, was with his men near Harrison's Landing, in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of this narrow strip of  land.

During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moan of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the field.  Not knowing if it was a Union or Confederate soldier, the captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention.

Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment. When he finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier--but the soldier was dead.

The captain finally caught his breath and lit a lantern. Suddenly, he went numb with shock. In the dim light he saw the face of the soldier--it was his own son! The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out and without telling his father, enlisted in the Confederate Army.

The following morning the heartbroken father asked permission of superiors to give his son a full military burial, despite his enemy status. His request was partially granted.

The captain had asked if he could have a group of soldiers in the Army band play a funeral dirge for the son at the funeral. That request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate. Out of respect for the father they said they could give him one musician. He chose a bugler. He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of the dead youth's uniform. This was done. That music was the haunting bugle melody we know as "Taps".

While there are no official words to the bugle call itself, the commonly used lyrics are derived from the following verses:

Fading light dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar drawing nigh -- Falls the night.

Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

Then good night, peaceful night,
Till the light of the dawn shineth bright;
God is near, do not fear -- Friend, good night.

Dear Sir

About Taps.  It was forwarded to me.  This is my reply.
Read it and think about removing the version you have on your website PMEL.com

Thank you for forwarding the story of the origin of “Taps” to me.  The story of  Captain Robert Ellicombe and his Confederate son is a myth, a fake, a tall tale, a good story to tell around the old campfire but a story that holds no truth whatsoever.  This is one of those stories that is reprinted and forwarded to others and makes its way around the internet around Memorial Day, July 4th and Veterans Day.   The story gets printed in papers, newsletters, and, sad to say, even on some military websites as the true version of how the bugle call of “Taps” came to light.
I have sounded the call over 1,500 times over the past 15 years as an Air Force bugler at Arlington National Cemetery.  I am the curator of the Taps Exhibit at Arlington and a Civil War reenactor and historian.  I along with other history buffs have researched the real story and have tried to squash this fake story.

Here is the short real version:

                                 
24 NOTES THAT TAP DEEP EMOTIONS

Of all the military bugle calls, none is so easily recognized or more apt to render emotion than “Taps.”  The melody is both eloquent and haunting.  The history of its origin is interesting and somewhat clouded in controversy and myth.   The use of “Taps” is unique to the United States military, as the call is sounded at funerals, wreath-laying and memorial services.   Up until the Civil War, the infantry call for “Lights Out” was the one set down in Silas Casey’s “Tactics,” which had been borrowed from the French.  The music for “Taps” was changed by Union General Daniel Butterfield for his brigade (Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac) in July, 1862.   General Butterfield was not pleased with the call for “Lights Out,” feeling that it was too formal to signal the day’s end.  With the help of the brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, Butterfield created “Taps” to honor his men while in camp at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia following the Seven Days’ battle.  These battles took place during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.  The call, sounded that night in July, 1862, soon 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. 

Norton wrote about the experience later in his life:

 “During the early part of the Civil War I was bugler at the Headquarters of Butterfield’s Brigade, Morell’s Division, Fitz-John Porter’s Corps, Army of the Potomac. Up to July, 1862, the Infantry call for “Taps” was that set down in Casey’s Tactics... One day, soon after the seven days’ battles on the Peninsular, when the Army of the Potomac was lying in camp at Harrison’s Landing, General Daniel Butterfield, then commanding our Brigade, sent for me, 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. After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call for “Taps” thereafter in place of the regulation call. 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. 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.”

 Butterfield did not compose “Taps” but actually revised an earlier bugle call.  The call we know today as “Taps” existed in an early version of the call “Tattoo,” which had gone out of use by the Civil War.  Butterfield knew this call from his days before the war as a colonel for the 12th New York Militia.   As a signal for the end of the day, armies have used “Tattoo” to alert troops to prepare for bedtime roll call.  The fact that Norton says that Butterfield “composed” “Taps” cannot be questioned.  He was relaying the facts as he remembered them.  He was unaware of the early “Tattoo” call and could not have known about its existence.  How did it become associated with funerals?  The earliest official reference to the mandatory use of “Taps” at military funeral ceremonies is found in the US Army Infantry Drill Regulations for 1891, although it had doubtless been used unofficially long before that time, under its former designation, “Extinguish Lights.”  The first use of “Taps” was at a funeral during the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia.  Captain John C. Tidball of Battery A, 2nd Artillery ordered it played for the burial of a cannoneer killed in action.  Because the enemy was close, he worried that the traditional three volleys would renew fighting.

 The origin of the word “Taps” is thought to have come from the Dutch word for “Tattoo”- “Taptoe.”  More than likely, “Taps” comes from the the three drum taps that were played as a signal for “Extinguish Lights” when a bugle was not used.  As with many other customs, the twenty-four notes that comprise this solemn tradition began long ago and continue to this day.  Although General Butterfield merely revised an earlier bugle call, his role in producing those twenty-four notes gave him a place in the history of both music and of war.
 “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.”-Oliver   Willcox Norton

 We know much about the two men involved with the creation of “Taps.” They were Daniel Adams Butterfield and Oliver Willcox Norton. The two survived the Civil war, went on to become prosperous and respected businessmen and citizens.  Both wrote books about their Civil War experiences and both wrote about the creation of “Taps” in July 1862.  There is no proof that a Captain Robert Ellicombe ever existed.   The myth gives no indication of what unit he served in and I am asking anyone who can provide just one piece of information on the Captain or his son to please contact me.   I offer to spread this story if it can be proved.  It just can’t.   In order to be believed, one needs to produce muster, discharge, or pension papers and background history of both father and son, units, etc.  Lastly, where is the son's grave? There is no basis at all to the story except that it occurred near Harrison's Landing in July 1862 where the true origin took place.

 So where did this myth come from?  I have traced this tale to a Ripley’s Believe It Not story that Robert Ripley created for for his short-lived TV program in 1949.  This is chronicled in the book “Ripley, The Modern Marco Polo-The Life And Times of the Creator Of Believe Or Not” by Bob Considine , published by Doubleday & Co,. in 1961. As Considine wrote:  “The denouement of this is a coincidence incredible even by Rip’s standards.”  The myth took on a life of it’s own and was even printed as fact in an Ann Landers column.  She later printed a retraction.  It has taken a renewed life on the internet and is spread by many unsuspecting but well meaning people who believe it to be true. It is sad to see it on websites, especially military and veteran sites that should know better.

It is hoped that those who are interested in history will spread the word to stop the myth.

The best place to start is the  Taps Exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery at:
http://www.arlingtoncemetery.com/tapsproj.htm
Or read the entire article “24 Notes that Tap Deep Emotions” at:
http://www.west-point.org/taps/Taps.html

Thank you
Regards
Jari Villanueva

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copyright 1998 Ernest Huffine
Last modified: January 04, 2007