What could account for the variation in stories? My research shows that Butterfield did not compose Taps but actually revised an earlier bugle call. The fact is that Taps existed in an early version of the call Tattoo. As a signal for end of the day, armies have used Tattoo to signal troops to prepare them for bedtime roll call. The call was used to notify the soldiers to cease the evening’s drinking and return to their garrisons. It was sounded an hour before the final call of the day to extinguish all fires and lights. This early version is found in three manuals – the Winfield Scott (1786-1866) manual of 1835, the Samuel Cooper (1798-1876) manual of 1836 and the William Gilham (1819?-1872) manual of 1861. This call, referred to as the Scott Tattoo, was in use from 1835-1860.
A second version of Tattoo came into use just before the Civil War and was in use throughout the war replacing the Scott Tattoo.
The fact that Norton says that Butterfield composed Taps cannot be questioned. He was relaying the facts as he remembered them. His conclusion that Butterfield wrote Taps can be explained by the presence of the second Tattoo. It was most likely that the second Tattoo, followed by Extinguish Lights (the first eight measures of today’s Tattoo), was sounded by Norton during the course of the war.
It seems possible that these two calls were sounded to end the soldier’s day on both sides during the war. It must therefore be evident that Norton did not know the early Tattoo or he would have immediately recognized it that evening in Butterfield’s tent. If you review the events of that evening, Norton came into Butterfield’s tent and played notes that were already written down on an envelope. Then Butterfield, “changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me.” If you compare that statement while looking at the present day Taps, you will see that this is exactly what happened to turn the early (Scott) Tattoo into Taps.
Butterfield, as stated above, was a Colonel before the War and in General Order No. 1 issued by him on December 7, 1859 had the order: “The Officers and non-commissioned Officers are expected to be thoroughly familiar with the first thirty pages, Vol. 1, Scott’s Tactics, and ready to answer any questions in regard to the same previous to the drill above ordered.” Scott’s Tactics include the bugle calls that Butterfield must have known and used. If Butterfield was using Scott’s Tactics for drills, then it is feasible that he would have used the calls as set in the manual.
Lastly, it is hard to believe that Butterfield could have composed anything that July in the aftermath of the Seven Days battles which saw the Union Army of the Potomac mangled by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Over twenty six thousand casualties were suffered on both sides. Butterfield had lost over 600 of his men on June 27th at the battle of Gaines Mill and had himself been wounded. In the midst of the heat, humidity, mud, mosquitoes, dysentery, typhoid and general wretchedness of camp life in that early July, it is hard to imagine being able to write anything.
In the interest of historical accuracy, it should be noted that General Butterfield did not compose Taps, rather that he revised an earlier call into the present day bugle call we know as Taps. This is not meant to take credit away from him.
Following the Peninsular Campaign, Butterfield served at 2nd Bull Run, Antietam and at Marye’s Heights in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Through political connections and his ability for administration, he was promoted to Major General and served as Chief of Staff of the Union Army of the Potomac under Generals Joseph Hooker and George Meade. He was wounded at Gettysburg and then reassigned to the Western Theater. By war’s end, he was breveted a Brigadier General and stayed in the army after the Civil War, serving as superintendent of the army’s recruiting service in New York City and Colonel of the 5th Infantry. In 1870, after resigning from the military, Butterfield went back to work with the American Express Company. He was in charge of a number of special public ceremonies, including General William Tecumseh Sherman’s funeral in 1891.
Butterfield died in 1901. His tomb is the most ornate in the cemetery at West Point despite the fact that he never attended. There is also a monument to Butterfield in New York City near Grant’s Tomb. There is nothing on either monument that mentions Taps or Butterfield’s association with the call. Taps was sounded at his funeral.
How did the call become associated with funerals? The earliest official reference to the mandatory use of Taps at military funeral ceremonies is found in the U.S. Army Infantry Drill Regulations for 1891, although it had doubtless been used unofficially long before that time, under its former designation Extinguish Lights.
The first sounding of Taps at a military funeral is commemorated in a stained glass window at The Chapel of the Centurion (The Old Post Chapel) at Fort Monroe, Virginia.
The site where Taps was born is also commemorated by a monument located on the grounds of Berkeley Plantation, Virginia. This monument to Taps was erected by the Virginia American Legion and dedicated on July 4, 1969. The site is also rich in history, for the Harrisons of Berkeley Plantation included Benjamin Harrison and William Henry Harrison, both presidents of the United States as well as Benjamin Harrison (father and great grandfather of future presidents), a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
This monument was rededicated 1n July, 2012.
Other stories of the origin of Taps exist. A popular, yet false, one is that of a Northern boy who was killed fighting for the south. His father, Robert Ellicombe, a Captain in the Union Army, came upon his son’s body on the battlefield and found the notes to Taps in a pocket of the dead boy’s Confederate uniform. He had the notes sounded at the boy’s funeral. There is no evidence to back up the story or the existence of a Captain Ellicombe.
Why the name Taps? The call of Tattoo was used in order to assemble soldiers for the last roll call of the day. Tattoo may have originated during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) or during the wars of King William III during the 1690s. The word tattoo in this usage is derived from the Dutch tap (tap or faucet) and toe (to cut off). When it was time to cease drinking for the evening and return to the post, the provost or Officer of the Day, accompanied by a sergeant and drummer, would go through the town beating out the signal. As far as military regulations went, there was a prescribed roll call to be taken “at Taptoe time” to ensure that all the troops had returned to their billets. It is possible that the word Tattoo became Taps. Tattoo was also called Tap-toe and as is true with slang terms in the military, it was shortened to Taps.
The other, and more likely, explanation is that the name Taps was borrowed from a drummer’s beat. The beating of Tattoo by the drum corps would be followed by the Drummer of the Guard beating three distinct drum taps at four count intervals for the military evolution Extinguish Lights. During the American Civil War, Extinguish Lights was the bugle call used as the final call of the day and as the name implies, it was a signal to extinguish all fires and lights. Following the call, three single drum strokes were beat at four-count intervals. This was known as the “Drum Taps” or in common usage of soldiers “The Taps” or “Taps.” There are many references to the term “Taps” before the war and during the conflict, before the bugle call we are all familiar with came into existence. So the drum beat that followed Extinguish Lights came to be called “Taps” by the common soldiers and when the new bugle call was created in July 1862 to replace the more formal sounding Extinguish Lights, (the one Butterfield disliked), the bugle call also came to be known as “Taps.”
The new bugle signal (also known as “Butterfield’s Lullaby”) is called “Taps” in common usage because it is used for the same purpose as the three drum taps. However the U.S. Army still called it Extinguish Lights and it did not officially change the name to Taps until 1891. As soon as Taps was sounded that night in July 1862, words were put with the music. The first were, “Go To Sleep, Go to Sleep.” As the years went on many more versions were created.
There are no official words to the music but here are some of the more popular verses:
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hill,
From the sky.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.
Fades the light; And afar
Goeth day, And the stars
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.
As with many other customs, this solemn tradition continues today. Although Butterfield merely revised an earlier bugle call, his role in producing those twenty four notes gives him a place in the history of music as well as the history of war.
For more information about Taps, order the booklet Twenty-Four Notes That Tap Deep Emotions: The history of America’s most famous bugle call, by Jari Villanueva.
Taps Bibliography and Sources
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Bauman, Richard. “The Man Who Wrote Taps.” The Retired Officer (November 1989); 24-26, 28-29.
Billings, John D. Hardtack and Coffee or The Unwritten Story of Army Life. Boston: George Smithand Co., 1887. Reprinted by Nebraska Press, 1993.
Butterfield, Daniel A. Camp and Outpost Duty For Infantry. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1863.
Butterfield, Julia L. A Biographical Memorial of General Daniel Butterfield including many Addresses and Military Writings. New York: The Grafton Press, 1904.
Blankenship, Ted. “Butterfield’s Monument in Sound.” V.F.W. Magazine (May 1969); 18, 40.
Blankenship, Ted. “Modernization Means Playing Taps for a Noble Instrument.” Army (July 1985); 14-15.
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Chandler, Melbourne. Of Garry Owen in Glory: The History of the 7th U.S. Cavalry. N.p., 1960.
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The Dallas Morning News. The Day JFK Died–Thirty Years Later: The Event That Changed A Generation. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews and McMeel, 1993.
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About the author:
Jari A. Villanueva is a bugler and bugle historian. A graduate of the Peabody Conservatory and Kent State University, he was the curator of the Taps Bugle Exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery from 1999-2002. He retired from the United States Air Force Band in 2008 and is considered the country’s foremost authority on the bugle call Taps. Jari continues honoring our veterans by serving as Director of the Maryland National Guard Honor Guard.
More extensive bio can be found by clicking HERE