A history of “Taps,” the National Song of Remembrance

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – Perhaps the most recognized 24 notes ever played on a bugle, “Taps” is known as the National Song of Remembrance, and is a call unique to the United States military.

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the original call — known as Tattoo — was borrowed from the French and used as a signal to turn the lights out at day’s end.

While some believe the name “Taps” derives from the Dutch word for tattoo, ‘taptoe’, the VA cites the more likely origin as “the three drum taps that were beat as a signal for ‘Extinguish Lights’ when a bugle was not used.”

While stationed Harrison’s Landing, Virginia during the Civil War, Major General Daniel Adams Butterfield determined that the original tune was “too formal to signal the day’s end.” He enlisted his brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, to help revise the music.

As the troops wrapped up the Seven Days’ battles of 1862’s Peninsular Campaign, Butterfield and Norton wrapped up their revisions, and the modern “Taps” was born.

Norton reflected on his experience, noting that there was no formal adoption of the call, it organically spread to neighboring troops, and eventually through the entire army.

“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.”

Oliver Wilcox Norton

Soon after, officials began using the tune for funerals. The VA reports that “Taps” was first played at a funeral during the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia following the death of a cannoneer.

“Captain John C. Tidball of Battery A, 2nd Artillery ordered it played for the burial” instead of the typical three volleys. “Because the enemy was close, he worried that the traditional three volleys would renew fighting.”

The VA lists “the earliest official reference to the mandatory use of “Taps” at military funeral ceremonies” as 1891. It has been played at every military funeral since then, as well as wreath laying ceremonies and memorial services. It is still used to signal end of day on United States military installations.

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