It’s a familiar yet haunting melody.
Twenty-four notes. A simple, 155-year-old tune that’s played to express gratitude and to honor the men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country.
But do you know the history behind taps? According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the creation of and idea of using taps as the regular call for lights out came during the Civil War.
A department website says that, until the Civil War, the traditional military call at day’s end was “Lights Out,” a tune borrowed from the French. But in July 1862, in the aftermath of a bloody battle near Richmond, Va., Union Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield of the Army of the Potomac called the brigade bugler to his tent.
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Butterfield thought “Lights Out” was too formal and wished to honor the more than 600 men who had died in the fighting. Oliver Wilcox Norton, the bugler, recounted that Butterfield showed him “some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, (he) 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. The call was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac.”
Butterfield had apparently reworked another bugle call, “Scott Tattoo,” into taps.
The first use of taps at a military funeral came in 1862, according to Col. James A. Moss in his Officer’s Manual, first published in 1911. Moss writes: “During the Peninsular Campaign in 1862, a soldier of Tidball’s Battery A of the 2nd Artillery was buried at a time when the battery occupied an advanced position concealed in the woods. It was unsafe to fire the customary three volleys over the grave, on account of the proximity of the enemy, and it occurred to Capt. Tidball that the sounding of Taps would be the most appropriate ceremony that could be substituted.”
In 1874, taps was officially recognized by the U.S. Army. It became standard at military funeral ceremonies in 1891.
According to the website usmemorialday.org, there are also unofficial lyrics to taps, although they are rarely sung with the bugle call.
Day is done, gone the sun, from the hills, from the lake, from the skies. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
Go to sleep, peaceful sleep. May the soldier or sailor God keep on the land or the deep safe in sleep.
Love, good night. Must thou go, when the day and the night need thee so? All is well. Speedeth all to their rest.
Fades the light; and afar goeth day, and the stars shineth bright. Fare thee well. Day has gone, night is on.
Thanks and praise, for our days, ’neath the sun, ’neath the stars, ’neath the sky. As we go, this we know: God is nigh.
Vicki S. Reynolds: 316-268-6529, @vsreynolds