Excerpts from an article Jonathan W. Pierce, a former chief of Army newspapers.
The stories behind Taps belong to the lore of the Civil War.
One story concerns a Union captain, Robert Ellison, who, after a battle near Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, listened to the moans of a wounded soldier lying on the battlefield. Disregarding his own safety, Ellison crawled to the soldier and pulled him back to his lines.
Once there he discovered the wounded man was a Confederate soldier, who unfortunately had died during the rescue effort. When the soldier was turned face up, Ellison found, to his dismay, the soldier was his son. His son had been studying music in the South when the war started and had enlisted there. In searching his son’s pockets, Ellison discovered a composition written by his son. Unable to perform a full military burial or even to obtain a military band, Ellison asked a bugler to play his son’s music. Taps, according to this story, began there.
Arlington National Cemetery gives a different account prepared by Master Sergeant Jari A. Villanueva of the U.S. Air Force Band at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C. Villanueva is writing a book on the history of bugle calls in the United States and focuses on Taps.
Here the story of Taps also begins at Harrison’s Landing. General Daniel Butterfield, well known for his unit specific bugle calls and organizational patches, was unhappy with the call for Lights Out, believing it to be too formal an end to the hard labors of daily combat.
Following the Seven Days battle in July 1862, Butterfield called for his brigade bugler, Oliver Norton. Norton said in later years that Butterfield showed him a staff of music written on the back of an envelope and asked him to play it. After asking the bugler to lengthen and shorten some of the notes while maintaining the basic tune, Butterfield directed the bugler to play the music instead of Lights Out.
The music was beautiful on the still summer night, according to Norton, and it was heard far beyond the limits of the brigade area. Norton reports that several buglers from neighboring units visited the next day to get copies of the tune. Villanueva writes it is unlikely Butterfield composed the music independently because Butterfield himself later said he could not write music. More likely, believes Villanueva, Butterfield revised a version of (Winfield) Scott’s Tattoo he found in a military manual predating the Civil War.
Who wrote Taps may be interesting to those who want to study Civil War lore. But what Taps is has risen above the matter of authorship – it is now a matter of ownership. Taps belongs to those who give their last full measure of devotion to the defense of the nation and its vital interests, and to those who offer, and have offered that devotion and yet live. Taps belongs also to those who have lived as military family members and face the sacrifice of giving up their loved ones, that the greater population may live in peace.
Taps is for those who have known their duty and done it … for those who have sacrificed for their country with honor … for those who have loved their country and served it well.
Taps is the music of the soldier’s soul.