The Tuneful Tale of "Taps"

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How a Back-of-an Envelope Inspiration Became an Anthem

Frank Mullady and William H. Kofoed
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Ever wonder about the bugle call performed on Memorial Day and Veterans Day and at almost every military funeral? Here’s the tale of â€śTaps”…

By the start of the U.S. Civil War (1861–65), Daniel S. Butterfield, a successful New York City lawyer and financier, had been a member of the New York militia since 1854. He soon found himself going into action as a colonel of the 12th New York, leading his troops across the historic Long Bridge from Washington, D.C., into Virginia.

Butterfield became a brigadier general and then a major general. At times, he served as chief of staff for generals Joseph Hooker and George Meade. A man of spirit and courage, Butterfield would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, Virginia, on June 27, 1862.

Daniel ButterfieldBut his very considerable talents were not all tactical or administrative. He had a creative bent. Among other things, he was the originator of the “shoulder patch,” or badge, which he designed to identify the soldiers of his unit and which is now in use by armies all over the world.

Although without formal musical training, Butterfield had an extraordinary ear for music, and he indulged that instinct by composing trumpet calls: first, variations of some of the regular calls; later, original compositions. In the first case, necessity was the mother of his creativeness, for, in the maelstrom of battle, he often found his brigade responding to other brigade calls and vice versa. At times, the confusion was costly. His revision of the calls put an end to that.

“Too Formal”

One night in July 1862, while with Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s army at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, Butterfield was in the company of Brig. Gen. Daniel Sickles and several other officers. (The Landing is the site of Berkeley Plantation, where more than 100,000 soldiers camped for 45 days in the summer of 1862.) When the bugler sounded the final call of the day—“Extinguish Lights”—Butterfield listened critically. “I don’t like the sound of that call,” he said. “It’s too formal. More like a trumpeting welcome to a foreign potentate than a soldier’s good-night.”

In the morning, after mail call, Butterfield scribbled some musical notes—a revision of an old French bugle call—on the back of an envelope and then summoned the brigade bugler, Pvt. Oliver W. Norton, of the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry.

Butterfield handed Norton the envelope and asked him to blow the notes. Not quite satisfied with the first trial, Butterfield made a minor correction and gestured for Norton to repeat the call. Again, he changed a note or two—the composition had 24 notes in all—and that was that.

After the bugler had spent 2 days familiarizing himself with the new call, which had been tentatively titled “Lights Out,” Butterfield ordered it used as the last call of the day in his brigade.

A Call for All

A short time later, the call was first played at a military funeral, a service for a Union cannoneer killed in battle. Capt. John Tidball, the soldier’s commanding officer, chose to honor the man with Butterfield’s call instead of the customary three rifle shots. He did not want the nearby enemy to interpret the volleys as the beginning of an attack.

The appeal of Butterfield’s call can not be overstated. No other unpublished piece of music in history ever spread with such rapidity. Within a matter of weeks, it had been adopted by all Union armies in the East, and within a month or two—thanks to captured buglers or merely by virtue of having had its mystical strains heard as they drifted over enemy lines at night—the call became official in all of the camps of the Confederates as well. There may have been profound political and economic differences between these men, but there was never a doubt about the universal beauty of the call.

How “Taps” Got Its Name

Prior to Butterfield’s arrangement, the lights-out bugle call for soldiers, known as “The Taps,” was concluded with three drum beats, aka “Drum Taps.” When Butterfield’s treatment replaced this, the name “Taps” stuck—but unofficially. In American military manuals, the call was known officially as “Extinguish Lights” until 1891. 

How “Taps” Unified Civil War Veterans

A quarter of a century after the titanic struggle at Gettysburg, a reunion of veterans of both the North and South took place there. Soldiers who had survived those three terrible July days came from all over the land. But even after the passing of the years, there still remained a considerable residue of bitterness, as tramping over the familiar fields brought back memories. For a while, it appeared that the reunion might fail in its purpose of reconciliation.

Late on the second day, a bugler—his name now lost to obscurity—went to Little Round Top, stood at attention, raised his trumpet to his lips, and blew Butterfield’s call.

As the notes sounded over the Peach Orchard and onto grim Cemetery Ridge, to echo across Willoughby Run, re-echo on Culp’s Hill, along McPherson’s Ridge, and then over Big Round Top, every veteran came to attention, listening. A little of the grimness left their faces. A kind of hope fought with old fears and hatreds. When the final note had died away, groups coalesced and moved in unison toward Little Round Top, instinctively answering that “last call.”

There had been no rehearsal; the bugler’s action had been personal and spontaneous. But as a result, softening attitudes were everywhere apparent. Gone was talk of victory or defeat at Gettysburg. Talk was of the heroic dead, of the tragedy on both sides, and soon there was talk of no sides at that reunion.

General Butterfield himself was one of those present. His papers show how that sounding of his call by the unknown bugler had affected him. “Somehow,” he wrote, “in a way that I can not explain, it removed from my mind the last trace of bitterness carried over from the battlefields. When I reached Little Round Top, I saw no blue or gray uniforms, just … old comrades.”

“Comfort and Peace”

Butterfield died on July 17, 1901, and became one of the few soldiers not graduated from West Point to be interred there. He was buried with full military honors, and his tomb is the most ornate in the cemetery—yet there is nothing on it that mentions “Taps” or Butterfield’s association with it. (A monument at Berkeley Plantation commemorates the call’s origin.) Curiously enough, because of its rock formations, the Point is perhaps the finest place in the world to listen to the call of â€śTaps.”

It was inevitable that “Taps” should come to be sounded over the graves of soldiers and sailors. Its dignity, its majesty, and the fact that it is the “last call of the day” made such use a foregone conclusion. But to regard it in any sense as a dirge would not be the correct appraisal. At least, that would not be Butterfield’s appraisal. Though sad in the sense that twilight is sad, the overtones are reassuring.

Butterfield said that he meant the call to be one of “comfort and peace” to the soldier, no matter how hard the fighting, how exhausting the forced marching or other harassments. This was his call to rest, to serenity and faith, implicit in its assurance of renewed strength with the coming of dawn. All this from two brief lines of musical notes scrawled on the back of an envelope: a call that can be identified around the world by its first three notes.

Do you know the real meaning of Memorial Day (and how it’s different than Veteran’s Day)? Get the facts now!

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