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Veteran’s Day and the History of “Taps”

This marine bugler is playing “Taps” during a ceremony at Arlington Cemetery.

This marine bugler is playing “Taps” during a ceremony at Arlington Cemetery.

By Karen O’Brien

Trumpet players will be in demand on Tuesday, November 11, as communities across the country commemorate Veteran’s Day with wreath-laying ceremonies, the posting of colors, speeches, and moments of silence punctuated by the solemn notes of “Taps.”

Just twenty-four notes in duration, the haunting melody of “Taps” intones significance and permeates ceremonies with a poignant reminder of service and sacrifice.

The exact origin of “Taps” has been the subject of debate for years, but most agree on a few basic points of its history.

The tune is a revised version of the bugle call for Extinguish Lights (Lights Out) that signaled the end of the day. An early version of the call “Tattoo” appeared in the military manual Tactics authored by Winfield Scott and was used from 1835 to 1860 as a signal for troops to prepare for bedtime. Just before the American Civil War broke out, a second version of the “Scott Tattoo” came into use.

During the Civil War, Brigadier General Daniel Adams Butterfield revised the “Tattoo” into the tune we recognize today as “Taps.” As the story goes, Butterfield and his regiment (the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division in the V Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac) were encamped at Harrison’s Landing, Va., following the costly Seven Day’s battle of the Peninsular Campaign of 1862 during the Civil War.

“Taps” is traditionally played on a bugle, which is a cousin to the trumpet seen here. The bugle doesn’t have the three valves that trumpet players depress to change notes.

“Taps” is traditionally played on a bugle, which is a cousin to the trumpet seen here. The bugle doesn’t have the three valves that trumpet players depress to change notes.

Butterfield believed the call for Extinguish Lights was too formal to signal the simple end of the day. Although the general could not read music, all officers of that period were required to be familiar with all bugle calls. Butterfield lengthened some notes and shortened others when revising the call. The brigade bugler, Oliver Wilcox Norton, was the first to play the new call. The tune soon spread throughout the Union and Confederate armies and was officially recognized by the United States Army in 1874.

Used at military funerals today, “Taps” was first played at a funeral in 1862, also during the Peninsular Campaign of the Civil War. Captain John C. Tidball ordered the playing of “Taps” over the grave of a fallen cannoneer in Battery A of the 2nd Artillery because they occupied a forward position and the enemy was so close that the traditional firing of three volleys might have renewed the fighting. The custom was quickly adopted by the Army of the Potomac, and it became a permanent part of military funerals in 1891.

To this day, “Taps” is sounded nightly at military institutions to indicate lights out.

Did You Know?

There are no official words to accompany the melody of “Taps,” although many verses have been created over the years. Two of the most popular versions are:

Go to sleep, peaceful sleep
May the soldier or sailor
God keep.
On the land or the deep,
Safe in sleep.

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

Karen O’Brien is a freelance writer and musician.

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