Wednesday, May 23, 2012

At 150, taps links us to past -- May 23, 2012 column


I grew up hearing taps. My dad was in the Air Force, and on many of the air bases we temporarily called home, the mournful notes of taps were a steady punctuation, signaling the end of another day.

We were living in Japan when the bugler cracked a note of taps the day President Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Now as then, taps calls us to reflect on those who have given their lives for our country. Taps stirs patriotic feelings in the jaded; it wrings out every drop of cynicism I think I have.

Until a few days ago, though, I had no idea where taps began. On this, the 150th anniversary of taps, here’s its story.

One July day in 1862, Union Brigadier Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield, commander of a brigade camped at Harrison’s Landing in southeastern Virginia, sent for his bugler.

It was just after the bloody Seven Days battles, where Butterfield was wounded and 600 of his troops were killed. In his tent, Butterfield showed bugler Oliver W. Norton some musical notes written in pencil on the back of an envelope and asked him to play them.

“I did this several times, playing the music as written,” Norton wrote long after the Civil War. “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 regular call.”

The regulation call for “lights out” was a tune borrowed from the French that Butterfield found too formal. That night, bugler Norton played taps.

“The music was beautiful on that still summer night and was heard far beyond the limits of our brigade,” Norton wrote in a magazine in 1898. “The next day I was visited by several buglers from neighboring brigades, asking for copies of the music which I gladly furnished.”

And so taps spread, not by directive from Washington but by commanders along the James River and farther afield who heard the haunting melody. It was soon played at the burial of a cannoneer killed in action in Virginia.

Jari A. Villanueva, a retired Air Force bugler and the nation’s leading taps historian, tells the history of taps in his booklet, “Twenty-Four Notes that Tap Deep Emotions,” and his website.

Villanueva, who has devoted many years to taps history research, concluded that Butterfield did not compose taps but revised an earlier bugle call.

No matter, the melancholy music also caught the ear of Confederates. Ten months after it was composed, taps was played at the funeral of Confederate Lieutenant Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Taps was made an official Army bugle call after the Civil War. Today taps is played at the end of the day on most military bases and at funerals of military personnel and veterans.

On its 150th anniversary, taps is getting fresh attention. About 200 buglers from around the country gathered at Arlington National Cemetery Saturday to play taps. Taps is being remembered this week at the Trumpet Guild Conference in Columbus, Ga.

A commemoration of the first taps is scheduled for June 22 through 24 at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City, Va., where Civil War re-enactors will portray the Union Army camped at Harrison’s Landing. A rededication of the taps monument there is planned for June 23.

In case you’re curious, the Army says that taps – and reveille – are not capitalized or put in quotation marks because they are bugle calls, not songs or official titles.

The name taps is thought to be shorthand for a “tattoo” or signal that soldiers should quit carousing and return to quarters, according to the Veterans Administration. The Dutch word “taptoe” is a command that means shut the tap of a keg,

Villanueva scotches as myth the oft-repeated tale that Robert Ellicombe, a captain in the Union army, found the music for taps in the pocket of his dead Confederate soldier son on the battlefield and then had the notes played at the boy’s funeral.

“There is no evidence to back up the story or the existence of a Captain Ellicombe,” Villanueva says.
The spirit that prompted Civil War commanders to embrace taps also animates buglers in the 21st century. Buglers Across America was founded in 2000 to ensure that veterans’ funerals have taps performed live.

Congress decided in 1999 that most veterans should get a two-person military color guard at their funerals to fold the American flag and to play taps. There are too few military buglers to go around, so Congress also said playing a recording of taps was acceptable. An enterprising company came up with an electronic gizmo that fits into bugles and plays taps digitally.

No, the nation’s buglers said, that’s not good enough. More than 7,500 buglers around the country now volunteer to play at veterans’ funerals. Bravo.

Thank you, buglers, for finding the time to honor our veterans with taps.

And, thank you, General Butterfield and bugler Norton, for giving us a melody that connects America’s past and present.

(Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. You may contact her at

(c) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Ms. Mercer for selecting Taps as your topic for this week and for writing about it so beautifully. It is most appropriate as Memorial Day approaches, when we honor our military. You captured the emotional essence of this beautiful piece of music. We expect that all the newspapers in Virginia and most of the newspapers around the country will want to publish this fine column. Nice work, indeed.