24 NOTES THAT TAP DEEP EMOTIONS
THE STORY OF TAPS
by Jari Villanueva
Of all the military bugle calls, none is so easily recognized or more apt to evoke emotion than
"Taps.” The melody is both eloquent and haunting and 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 ceremonies and memorial services. "Taps” originally began as a signal to extinguish
lights. Up until the Civil War, the infantry call for "Extinguish Lights” was the one set down in the
Infantry manuals which had been borrowed from the French. The music for "Taps” was changed
by Major General Daniel Adams Butterfield for his brigade in July, 1862. Butterfield was not
pleased with the call for "Extinguish Lights” feeling that it was too formal to signal the day’s end.
With the help of the brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, he created "Taps” to honor his men
while in camp at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia following the Seven Days’ battles during the
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 early call from his days before the war as a colonel in the 12th
New York Militia. As a signal at the end of the day, armies have used "Tattoo” to alert troops to
prepare for the evening roll call. Butterfield took the last 5 and a half measures of the "Tattoo”
and revised them into the 24 notes we know today. The new call soon spread to other units of the
Oliver Willcox 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,...
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 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.”
The earliest official reference to the mandatory use of "Taps” at military funeral ceremonies is
found in the U.S. 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” at a funeral was during the Peninsular 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 three drum taps that were beat as a signal for
"Extinguish Lights” when a bugle was not used.
Other stories of the origin of "Taps” exist. A popular myth is that of a Northern boy who was
killed fighting for the South. His father, a Captain in the Union Army, came upon his son’s body on
the battlefield and found the notes to "Taps” in a pocket of the dead boy’s Confederate uniform.
There is no evidence to back up the story or the existence of the Captain or his son.
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.
Today, "Taps” is sounded as the final call every evening on military installations and at military
funerals. In 2012 Congress recognized "Taps” as the "National Song of Remembrance.”
Day is done, gone the sun, From the hills, from the lake,
From the skies.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.
Go to sleep, peaceful sleep,
May the soldier or sailor,
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
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.