If anyone can be said to have composed ‘Taps,’ it was Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, during the American Civil War.
Dissatisfied with the customary firing of three rifle volleys at the conclusion of burials during battle and also wanting a less harsh bugle call for ceremonially signaling the end of a soldier’s day, he likely altered an older piece known as “Tattoo,” a French bugle call used to signal “lights out,” into the call we now know as ‘Taps.’
Summoning his brigade’s bugler, Private Oliver Willcox Norton, to his tent one evening in July 1862, Butterfield (whether he wrote ‘Taps’ straight from the cuff or improvised something new by rearranging an older work) worked with the bugler to transform the melody into its present form. As Private Norton later wrote of that occasion: ‘Taps’ was quickly taken up by both sides of the conflict, and within months was being sounded by buglers in both Union and Confederate forces.
Then as now, ‘Taps’ serves as a vital component in ceremonies honoring military dead. American service members also understand it as an end-of-day ‘lights out’ signal. When “Taps” is played at a military funeral, protocol calls for military members to salute if in uniform or place one’s hand over one’s heart if not.
This article appears in the March 2020 edition of the Celebration News.
The Veterans Club of Celebration meets the second Thursday of each month at Town Hall.