The sweet but sad bugle call known as Taps employs only four separate notes and there are only 24 notes in the entire composition – but its plaintive strains continue to tug at heartstrings after 122 years.
Taps is sounded at patriotic Veterans and Memorial Day services and at flag-lowering and “lights out” ceremonies in the military. It is best known to many as a musical benediction performed at military burials. Often the bugler mutes his instrument for an “echo” version which seldom fails to moisten the eyes of listeners.
Have you ever wondered about the origin of Taps?
The best research I’ve found comes from an article by Paul Ditzel in the American Legion Magazine for August 1974.
Ditzel said the Taps widely known today was composed in July 1862 during the Civil War by a Union one-star general, Daniel Adams Butterfield while camped at Harrison’s Landing on the banks of the James River near Richmond, Va.
Curiously, Butterfield did not read music. And the Civil War origin of Taps might have been lost to history except for an incorrect version published in 1898 in Century Magazine. The article drew quick response from Oliver W. Norton of Chicago who had been Butterfield’s bugler and the first ever to sound what was than the “new” Taps.
Norton’s letter prompted Century editors to contact Butterfield, then a prosperous businessman near West Point, N.Y. The former general confirmed Norton’s story and related sad events that led to the now famous bugle call.
The Peninsular Campaign in Virginia had gone badly. Nearly 11,000 troops on both sides had been killed in the Seven Days Battle. Butterfield’s Third Brigade was severely decimated.
In a somber frame of mind, the general pondered the regulation bugle call known as “Extinguish Lights” (also called Taps, that name being much older than the particular bugle call used).
He felt that “Extinguish Lights” did not portray the appropriate musical style and depth of feeling.
“To compose a new Taps,” Ditzel wrote, “Butterfield formed a melody in his bead. An aide wrote it down in musical notation from his humming and whistling.”
Nest he sent for Norton, his 22-year-old bugler, then a private in the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Norton, later to become a major, played the notes several times as Butterfield dictated changes, “lengthening some notes and shortening others” while retaining the basic melody.
On that still summer night, Norton played the new Taps for the first time. The music was heard far beyond limits of the brigade. The next day buglers from neighboring brigades came, asking for copies.
Sensing the universal appeal of the melody echoing across no-man’s-land. Confederate buglers began to copy it. One of them played the new Taps at Stonewall Jackson’s funeral.
In 1874, 10 years after the war, Butterfield’s version was adopted officially by the U.S. Army.
Interestingly, Butterfield never claimed credit publicly until queried by Century magazine in 1898, according to Ditzel. “Maybe Taps seemed inconsequential to him compared to his civilian career and military service in which be was in 43 battle actions and rose to major general.”
Yet the modern Taps outlives the memory of his wartime valor and civilian successes.
Various words have been written to the melody. These are frequently used:
Day is done, gone the sun
From the hills, from the lake,
From the sky.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.
In 1901, Butterfield died after a stroke. He was buried at West Point where a bugler sounded Taps after the military salute.
Today, a monument to Taps, erected by the Virginia American legion in 1969, stands at the old Butterfield Brigade campsite at Harrison’s Landing where the melody was composed.