The Origin of "Taps"

From the Urban Legends Reference Pages


Fighting on opposite sides, father and son meet one last time on a War Between the States battlefield. Found in the dying boy's pocket is the melody now known as "Taps."

It all supposedly began in 1862 during the War Between the States, when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison's Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land.

During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moan of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the field. Not knowing if it was a Union or Confederate soldier, the captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention.

Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment. When the captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead. The captain lit a lantern.

Suddenly, he caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier. It was his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, he had enlisted in the Confederate Army.

The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status.

His request was partially granted. The captain had asked if he could have a group of Army band members play a funeral dirge for the son at the funeral.

That request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate. Out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him only one musician.

The captain chose a bugler. He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of his dead son's uniform. This wish was granted. This music was the haunting melody we now know as "Taps" that is used at all military funerals.


It's hard to feel surprised when a melody as hauntingly beautiful as Taps picks up a legend about how it came to be written -- it's too mournfully direct a piece for the mere truth to suffice.

Taps was composed in July 1862 at Harrison's Landing in Virginia, but after that the fanciful e-mail quoted above parts way with reality. There was no dead son, Confederate or otherwise; no lone bugler sounding out the dead boy's last composition. How the call came into being was never anything more than one influential soldier deciding his unit could use a bugle call for particular occasions and setting about to come up with one.

" 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 War Between the States. Dissatisfied with the customary firing of three rifle volleys at the conclusion of burials during battle and also needing a method of ceremonially imparting meaning to 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."' (Alternatively, he wrote the whole thing from scratch, a possibility not at all supported by his lack of musical background and ability.)

Whether he wrote it straight from the cuff or improvised something new by rearranging an older work, Butterfield brought "Taps" into being. With the help of his bugler, Oliver W. Norton of Chicago, the concept was transformed into its present form. "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. It is also understood by American servicemen as an end-of-day "lights out" signal.

When "Taps" is played at a military funeral, it is customary to salute if in uniform, or place your hand over your heart if not.

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