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 use of Taps at a funeral occurred in 1862 during the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia. Usually, three volleys were fired during a military burial service. This practice may have originated in the old custom of halting the fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army had cleared its dead, it would fire three volleys to indicate that deceased soldiers had been cared for and that the army was ready to resume the fight. The tradition of firing the three volleys at funerals was noted in regulations and manuals. (In modern-day ceremonies, the fact that the firing party consists of seven riflemen firing three volleys does not constitute a twenty-one gun salute; that is only rendered by cannon firing twenty-one times.)
During the Peninsular Campaign, Captain John C. Tidball of Battery A, Second Artillery, lost a cannoneer who was killed in action. This soldier then needed to be buried at a time when the battery occupied an advanced position, concealed in the woods. Since the enemy was close, Tidball realized that it was unsafe to fire the customary volleys over the grave. He worried that the volleys would renew fighting. It occurred to Captain Tidball that the sounding of Taps would be the most appropriate ceremony to use as a substitute. He ordered it to be sounded during the burial. The practice, thus originated, was taken up throughout the Army of the Potomac, and finally confirmed by orders (Colonel James A. Moss’ Officer’s Manual, published by George Banta Publishing Co., Menasha, Wisconsin, 1913). Moss also writes that the sounding of Taps may have been inaugurated at West Point about 1840, and it may also have been sounded by certain regiments during the Mexican War. He could be referring to the use of the 1835 or Scott’s Tattoo call.
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.
An article (here in pdf format) entitled Prelude to Bugle Call Taps by COL Eugene C. Jacobs, USA (December 1984 issue of a periodical called “The New Age) recounts the birth of the call and the first use of the call at a funeral from Mabel Tidball, daughter of Captain John Tidball and the dedication of the stained glass window at The Chapel of the Centurion.
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.
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.