"Taps": A Soldier's Good Night: Since Its Creation during the Civil War, Taps Has Been Used to Signal the End of Day at Military Camps and to Pay Tribute to Those Brave Souls Who Have Gone to Their Final Rest

Article excerpt

America pays tribute to her military personnel with three national holidays. Veterans' Day on November 11 honors living men an women who served in America's armed forces. Armed Forces Day on the third Sunday in May honors men and women presently serving in our armed forces. Memorial Day on the last Monday in May honors deceased men and women who served.

For those who gave their lives to defend our country, the most moving tribute of all is the playing of the bugle call known as "Taps." Although it commonly signals the end of day at military camps, Taps also signals the end of life for American servicemen. No military bugle call is so easily recognized or more apt to bring a lump to your throat and tears to your eyes. Sounded at military funerals, wreath-laying, and memorial services, it is uniquely American and known all over the world. ("Last Post," the British army's counterpart sounded over soldiers' graves, is little known outside the United Kingdom.)

The eloquent, haunting 24-note melody was created during the Civil War by a Union Army officer, Brigadier General Daniel A. Butterfield, while he and his men were encamped at Harrison's Landing on the James River in Virginia. The call's simple purpose was to signal "extinguish lights" (fires and lanterns) at night. Butterfield, a Medal of Honor recipient, actually revised an earlier bugle call, "Tattoo," rather than composing an entirely new one. Nevertheless, his role in producing those 24 notes gave him a place in the history of music as well as the history of war.

In composing the call as a quiet requiem for the day just passed, Butterfield could not have foreseen its popularity and its use for another purpose: a national requiem honoring our military dead. In that regard, Taps has been described by Private Oliver W. Norton, the brigade bugler who helped Butterfield arrange it and first played it, as "something singularly beautiful and appropriate.... Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace." Likewise, Chaplain Colonel Edward Brogan at the opening of the Taps exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery in 1999 said, "Its plaintive notes are a prayer in music--of hope, of peace, of grief, of rest."

There are only three notes used in Taps: E, C, and G. There are no official words to it. Nevertheless, soldiers quickly fitted "Go to sleep" onto the tune and referred to it as Butterfield's lullaby. Many other verses exist. The most popular is the one sung in summer camp at day's end:

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

Another verse, more martial in its language, says:

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

A number of stories about the origin of Taps are untrue. According to one widely circulated story, one night a Union Army officer heard the moan of a mortally wounded soldier in the field, so he pulled him to the Union lines for medical treatment. There he discovered the soldier was a Confederate, had died during the rescue, and was his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, he enlisted in the Confederate Army. At his funeral the next day, the heartbroken father had the bugler play a series of musical notes he found on a piece of paper in a pocket of his dead son's uniform. The music was Taps.

As moving as this melodramatic story is, it is nonetheless sheer fantasy. There is no evidence to support it. Many of the other false stories are variations of this one. Let's now look at the facts.

The True Story of Taps

In July 1862, after the Seven Days battles near Richmond, the Army of the Potomac was encamped at Harrison's Landing on the north bank of the James River. The landing is part of the Berkeley Plantation, whose nearby mansion, a three-story red brick building of Georgian architecture, was the headquarters of General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsular Campaign. …