Date: Tue, 11 Dec 2001 03:22:00 -0800
From: Frank <>
Subject: The History of "Taps"

Dear Mike,

I was for a time under contract to the US Air Force to play Taps at all of the funerals in the greater San Francisco Bay Area at which the Air Force Honor Guard was requested. I would play Taps immediately after the 7 riflemen fired their 3 volleys (the 21-gun salute) and the Seargent said, "PRE-sent ARMS!" More recently, because I joined an organization called "Bugles Across America" which I found out about through TPIN, I have had more opportunities to play for military funerals. I play Taps on an American Military bugle pitched in concert G. If you wish to duplicate proper pitch, simply play the whole tune on your B-flat trumpet with valves 1 and 2 depressed.

A few years ago I was given a copy of an article from the December 1984 issue of a periodical called "The New Age", entitled "A Prelude to the Bugle Call 'Taps'. Born in an Army Field Hospital on a Civil War Battlefield" by Colonel Eugene C Jacobs. I shall condense that article here:

In 1957, while preparing for the Centennial celebration of the old Post Chapel at Fort Monroe, Virginia, I was introduced to Miss Mabel Tidball (born in 1875) of Charleston, South Carolina, daughter of General John C Tidball, a Civil War officer who later commanded Fort Monroe. I learned that her father, then a captain, had been the first to use "Taps" at a military funeral, in July of 1862, on the battlefield near Harrison's Landing on the James River in Virginia. Its composer was Colonel Daniel Butterfield, born Oct 3, 1831 in Utica, New York and graduated in 1849 from Union College in Schenectady.

Early in 1862, Col Butterfield and his 12th New York Militia became part of the newly created Army of the Potomac (AOP), consisting of 100,000 men under the command of Gen George B McClellan. Butterfield was given command of the Third Brigade of Infantry, which included his own 12th Militia and the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers. On March 17, 1862, the AOP boarded a flotilla of 113 steamers, 118 schooners, and 88 barges, which departed for Fortress Monroe, Virginia, the base of operations in a campaign to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital.

On April 14th, the AOP began fighting its way up the peninsula from Fortress Monroe to Fair Oaks, where the Rebel general was seriously wounded on May 31st. His replacement, General Robert E Lee, lost no time in making plans to drive McClellan's forces into the sea. When the Union troops came in sight of Richmond, Lee sent General JEB Stuart and his cavalry to surprise the AOP by completely surrounding it. On June 27th a pitched battle was fought at Gaines's Mill. At one point Butterfield's 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers began to falter. In spite of a serious wound, Butterfield seized the Regimental Colors at a critical moment and rallied his men to hold their ground. This action allowed the entire AOP to withdraw to Harrison's Landing on the James River, where seven Union gunboats gave artillery support to the tired army. It was considered one of the most skillful withdrawals in military history.

On July 1st, General Lee, in a desperate move to push McClellan's army into the James River, sent his rebels up to Malvern Hill. The massed Union artillery cut the Confederates to pieces, leaving some 5,000 dead on the hillside. On July 2nd, McClellan established his base at Harrison's Landing. His army's morale, already low, sank even lower after President Lincoln arrived and announced that "reinforcement was impossible", advising "to wait, to rest, and to repair".

While General Butterfield lay in his tent in an Army field hospital recovering from his wound, he reviewed all of the bugle calls of his brigade, many of which he had composed himself. He had been a great exponent of the bugle call, able to blow all the calls and to teach his buglers just how each call should sound. He took great pride in the fine discipline of his men, and the superior control he had of their actions through the medium of the bugle - in camps, on marches, in battle, and even in the black of night.

Butterfield was not satisfied with the final bugle call of the day, variously known as "Taps", "Tatoo", and "Lights Out". "It did not seem as smooth, melodious, and musical as it should; it was too formal." He believed that "Taps" should bring comfort and peace to his tired and troubled men. About the 4th of July, 1862, he called his brigade bugler, Oliver W Norton, to his tent and showed him some notes on a staff, which he had written in pencil on the back of an envelope. [Hmmm... isn't that how the Gettysburg Address was written, exactly one year later? -FBD] He asked Norton to sound them on his bugle. After hearing the call several times as written, Butterfield hummed and whistled some changes, lengthening some notes and shortening others. After getting it to his liking, he directed Norton to sound the new "Lights Out" that night and thereafter.

Thus, General Butterfield, without any formal knowledge of music, nor of the names of any notes, composed "Taps" as we know it today, simply by ear. Norton recalled, "The music was beautiful on that still summer night, and was heard beyond the limits of the Butterfield brigade as it echoed through the valleys. The next morning, buglers from other brigades came to visit and to inquire about the new 'Taps' and to learn how to sound it."

Several days after "Taps" was born, a soldier in Battery A of the 2nd US Artillery died. Normally, this soldier would have been honored by having his own squad fire three rifle volleys over his grave. At that time, however, the AOP was surrounded and closely observed by Confederate units. Captain John C Tidball, Battery A Commander (and later father to Miss Mabel), thought the rifle volleys might provoke new fighting by the Rebels. Neither side was ready to renew the battle. Capt Tidball told the bugler to "just sound 'Taps'!"

In early August, as the exhausted Federal Army slowly retraced its steps down the peninsula, the other units of the AOP gradually adopted the new bugle call. "Taps" also followed Butterfield's commands: to Fortress Monroe, to the Army of Northern Virginia, to the Army of Cumberland, to the Armies of the West (Chattanooga), to Gettysburg, and finally on General Sherman's March to the Sea. It has been said that the Confederates also adopted "Taps", using it at the burial of General "Stonewall" Jackson in 1863. Thus, on a Virginia battlefield near Harrison's Landing (now Berkley, VA), "Taps" was born, as well as the custom of sounding "Taps" at military funerals.

By 1874, it became mandatory for the Butterfield "Taps" to be used at all Army funerals. By 1900, all US Military Services were using it. And, during World War One, France adopted the American call. Late in the Civil War, Butterfield was promoted to Major General; he also received the Medal of Honor for his distinguished gallantry at Gaines' Mill. After the war, he returned to New York State, where he died in 1901. He was buried in the cemetery of the US Military Academy at West Point with full military honors. As "Taps" was sounded over his grave, few besides his wife knew that he had been its composer. Butterfield's gallantry has been reported in many Civil War histories and biographies, but little mention has been made of his composition of "Taps".

Though the trumpet has been used to sound alarms since before Biblical times, the fife and drum were popular in the American Continental Army of the 1770s and 1780s. The drum remained the chief form of sound signal in the Infantry until the Civil War. The "Taps" of that era was a drum tatoo. It was played by a drummer standing at the head of the regimental street in single staccato beats, to which the soldiers often chanted:

Go to bed, Tom!
Go to bed, Tom!
Go to bed! Go to bed! Go to bed!
Go to bed, Tom!
"Taps" is the Army's most beautiful bugle call. Played slowly and softly, it has a plaintive, tender and touching character. It rolls down the curtains on the soldier's day, and upon the soldier's life.

For further reading:
Butterfield, J L: "Biographical Memorial of Daniel Butterfield". Library of Congress and Pentagon Memorial Library.
Caton, B: "This Hallowed Ground". New York: Doubleday & Co., 1956.
Johnson, A: "Dictionary of American Biography". New York, 1946.

Well, Mike, I guess this was a bit more than you asked for. Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did transcribing it!

Frank Beau Davis,

Oakland, California