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Final Tribute

President's Own

A member of “The President’s Own” Marine Corps Band plays Taps during a burial service for

Marine Maj. Elizabeth Kealey at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.,

on Monday. Then-Capt. Kealey died on Jan. 23 in a helicopter

crash at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms.  

Mike Morones/Staff


Military Facts and Legends: The Origins of ‘Taps’

It is just 24 notes sounded on a bugle – and it lasts only 50 to 60 seconds.Yet no piece of music is more widely known in America than the strains of Taps or more apt to render emotion with a melody that is both eloquent and haunting.

According to legend, Taps was composed in July 1862 during the American Civil War near Harrison’s Landing, Virginia during the Peninsular Campaign. On one side of a narrow strip of land, Union Army soldiers faced elements of the Confederate Army camped on the other side.During the night, moans of a mortally wounded soldier awaked Union Captain Robert Ellicombe. 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 no-man’s land as periodic gunfire coming from both sides pierced the air above his head, the captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment. When the captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered in the dim light of a lantern it was actually a Confederate soldier who was already dead. Suddenly, he caught his breath and went numb with shock when 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. Without telling his father, he had enlisted in the Confederate Army. The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status.

The captain had asked if he could have a group of Army bandmembers 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 did say they could give him only one musician.

The captain 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 his dead son’s uniform. This wish was granted.

As romantic and gut-wrenching as this story is, it is not true; there was no dead son, Confederate or otherwise; no lone bugler sounding out the dead boy’s last composition. More importantly, there is no record whatsoever of a Union Army captain by the name of Robert Ellicombe. When or where this fable began is uncertain but it persisted for decades supported by many believers.

The revision that gave us present-day Taps was made during America’s Civil War by Union Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield, Commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Army Corps, Army of the Potomac camped at Harrison Landing, Va. Up to that time, the U.S. Army’s infantry call to end the day was the French final call, “L’Extinction des feux.” Gen. Butterfield decided the “lights out” music was too formal to signal the day’s end. One day in July 1862 he recalled the tattoo music and hummed a version of it to an aide, who wrote it down in music.

Summoning his brigade’s bugler, Private Oliver Willcox Norton to his tent one evening, Butterfield showed him the notes written in pencil on the back of an envelope. Several times Norton would sound them on his bugle. Butterfield changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to Norton. After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed Norton 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 the brigade.

Although no general order was issued from army headquarters authorizing the substitution of this for the regulation call, each brigade commander exercised his own discretion in such minor matters. Before long Taps was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac call for “light’s out” signal. It quickly came into use by the Army of Confederate States of America as well.It was officially recognized by the United States Army in 1874.

The first use of Butterfield’s Taps at a funeral was also at Harrison’s Landing a few days later when a soldier of Captain John C. Tidball of Battery A, 2nd Artillery was buried at a time when the battery occupied a concealed position in the woods. It was unsafe to fire the customary three volleys over the grave on account of the proximity of the enemy, and it occurred to Captain Tidball that the sounding of Taps would be used instead. Thus began the custom of playing Taps at a military funeral although it did not become a standard component to U.S. military funerals until 1891. (Capt. Tidball is the second officer from the left in this photo.)

Ten months after it was composed, Taps was also played at the funeral of Confederate Gen. Stonewall “Stonewall” Jackson at Lexington, Virginia.

This brings us to how ‘Taps’ got its name. One story claims it was a derivation of “Tattoo,” a French bugle signal that notified soldiers to cease an evening’s drinking and return to their garrisons. It was sounded an hour before the final bugle call to end the day by extinguishing fires and lights. The word ‘tattoo’ itself comes from the Dutch term ‘taptoe,’ meaning “close the (beer) taps (and send the troops back to camp).”

The more likely explanation, however, is that it carried over from a term already in use before the American Civil War. Three single, slow drum beats were struck after the sounding of the Tattoo or “Extinguish Lights.” This signal was known as the “Drum Taps,” “The Taps,” or simply as “Taps” in soldier’s slang.

This first sounding of Taps at the Capt. Tidball’s soldier’s military funeral is commemorated in a stained glass window at The Chapel of the Centurion (The Old Post Chapel) at Fort Monroe, Virginia. The window, made by R. Geissler of New York and based on a painting by Sidney King, was dedicated in 1958 and shows a bugler and a flag at half-staff. In that picture a drummer boy stands beside the bugler.

The site where Taps was born is also commemorated by a monument located on the grounds of Berkeley Plantation. This monument to Taps was erected by the Virginia American Legion and dedicated on July 4, 1969.

The haunting yet beautiful melody of Taps can be heard at the following site:

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