Almost every day when I check my e-mails, I get a message or two asking about or forwarding a story for my comment or enlightenment. It starts with, “It all began during the Civil War…” and goes on to relate the story of a Union Captain Ellicombe and how he finds his wounded Confederate son on a battlefield. The story is that the music of Taps is found in the pocket of the young man and that’s how the call came into being. It is a heartwarming and poignant story…
This story, of course, rates up there with the one that Colonel Oliver North tried to warn us about Osama Bin Laden during Congressional hearings and the one that Lee Marvin and Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) met as Marines on Iwo Jima,. Both stories contains a kernel of truth somewhere (North did testify at Congressional hearings, and Marvin and Keeshan were both Marines), yet the stories themselves are false. And like them, the Captain Ellicombe story is a yet another MYTH that makes it way around thanks to the Internet. Bad history, and we get to see a lot of it, needs to be corrected.
The story of Captain Robert Ellicombe and his Confederate son is a myth, a fake, a tall tale, a good anecdote to tell around the old campfire, but a story that, outside of the fact it takes place at Harrison’s Landing, holds no truth whatsoever. This is one of those stories that is reprinted and forwarded to others and makes its way around the Internet around Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day. The story gets printed in papers, newsletters, and, sad to say, even on some military websites as the true version of how the bugle call of Taps came into existence.
I have sounded the call thousands of times as bugler in national cemeteries and at hundreds of memorial services. I am also a bugle historian who has spent much time researching this topic. I was the curator of the Taps Exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery and am a Civil War re-enactor. I, along with other history buffs, have researched the real story and have tried to squash this myth.
You can read the true story of the creation of Taps HERE.
Here is the MYTH:
“We in the United States have all heard the haunting song, ‘Taps.’ It’s the song that gives us that lump in our throats and usually tears in our eyes. But, do you know the story behind the song? If not, I think you will be interested to find out about its humble beginnings. Reportedly, it all began in 1862 during the Civil War, when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison’s Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land.
During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who lay severely wounded on the field. Not knowing if it was a Union or Confederate soldier, the Captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention. Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the Captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment.
When the Captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead.
The Captain lit a lantern and suddenly caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier. It was his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, the boy enlisted in the Confederate Army.
The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son full military burial despite his enemy status. His request was only partially granted. The Captain had asked if he could have a group of Army band members play a funeral dirge for his son at the funeral. The request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate.
But, out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him only one musician. The Captain chose a bugler. He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of the dead youth’s uniform. This wish was granted.
The haunting melody we now know as ‘Taps,’ used at military funerals, was born.”
That is the myth. The true story may not tug at the heartstrings as much but certainly can be documented and shown to be the correct factual story of how Taps came into being.
We know much about the two men involved with the creation of Taps. Both Daniel Adams Butterfield and Oliver Willcox Norton survived the Civil War and went on to become prosperous and respected businessmen and citizens. They wrote about their Civil War experiences and of the creation of Taps in July 1862.
There is no proof that a Captain Robert Ellicombe ever existed. The myth gives no indication of what unit or state he served. In order to be believed, one needs to produce muster, discharge or pension papers and background history of both father and son, units, etc. Also, where is the son’s grave? There is no basis at all to the story, except that it also occurred near Harrison’s Landing in July 1862, where the true birth of Taps took place.
So where did this myth come from?
I have traced this tale to a Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” story that Robert Ripley created for his short-lived TV program in 1949. This is chronicled in the book Ripley, the Modern Marco Polo: The Life and Times of the Creator of “Believe It Or Not” by Bob Considine, published by Doubleday & Co. in 1961. As Considine wrote: “The denouement of this is a coincidence incredible even by Rip’s standards.”
The Taps myth took on a life of its own and was even printed as fact in an Ann Landers or Dear Abby column. A retraction was later printed. It has acquired a renewed life on the Internet and is spread by many unsuspecting but well-meaning people who believe it to be true. It is unfortunate to see it on websites, especially military and veterans’ sites that should know better. It is hoped that those who are interested in history will spread the word to stop the myth.