Feature Articles

The Origin of "Taps"

Jun 29, 2010

MSG Michael A. Parnell, Unit Historian

The United States Army Band "Pershing's Own"

"Taps" as we hear it today began as general bugle call that replaced a previous French bugle call for "To Extinguish Lights" which was sounded for lights out to close the soldier's day in the mid 1800's. The music for "Taps" is a variation of an earlier version of the general bugle call "Tattoo" known as the "Scott Tattoo." Written evidence of how "Taps" in its present form came to be suggests that Union Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield with the assistance of his brigade bugler, Private Oliver Wilcox Norton composed the bugle call.

Daniel Adams Butterfield (1831-1901) was born in Utica, New York, and graduated from Union College at Schenectady. He was the eastern superintendent of the American Express Company in New York when the Civil War broke out. A Colonel in the 12th Regiment of the New York State Militia, he was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of the Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac.

Written accounts in "The Century" magazine in 1898 (36 years later) by both GEN Butterfield and Private Norton about the origins of "Taps" reveal discrepancies but generally communicate the same story:

During the Civil War, in July 1862, the Army of the Potomac was in camp at Harrisons Landing on the James River in Virginia following the Seven Days Battle, GEN Butterfield summoned Private Oliver Wilcox Norton (1839-1920) of Erie, Pennsylvania, his brigade bugler, to his tent. GEN Butterfield disliked the bugle call "To Extinguish Lights" feeling that it was too formal to signal the day's end and wanted something different. He revised an earlier version of "Tattoo" called "Scott Tattoo," a general bugle call used to notify the soldiers to cease the evening's drinking and return to their garrisons. GEN Butterfield stated in a 1898 "Century " magazine article, "The call of 'Taps' did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be, and I called in someone who could write music, and practiced a change in the call of 'Taps' until I had it suit my ear."

PVT Norton, who on several occasions had sounded numerous new bugle calls composed by his commander, recalled his experience of the origin of "Taps" in an earlier August 1898 "The Century" magazine article:

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. I think no general order was issued from army headquarters authorizing the substitution of this for the regulation call, but as each brigade commander exercised his own discretion in such minor matters, the call was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac. I have been told that it was carried to the Western Armies by the 11th and 12th Corps, when they went to Chattanooga in the fall of 1863, and rapidly made its way through those armies.

"Taps" soon spread to other units of the Union Army and was reportedly also used by the Confederates as well. "Taps" was made an official general bugle call after the Civil War.

Col. James A. Moss, in his "Officer's Manual" first published in 1911, gives an account of the initial use of "Taps" at a military funeral:

During the Peninsular Campaign in 1862, a soldier of Captain 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 Captain Tidball that the sounding of Taps would be the most appropriate ceremony that could be substituted." The custom, thus originated, was taken up throughout the Army of the Potomac, and finally confirmed by orders.

Sounding Taps at Military Funerals. This practice involves a deeply felt sentiment -- "rest in peace." In the daily life of the soldier the sounding of taps at 11 o'clock pm signifying "Lights out," announces the end of the day, implying that taps at his funeral signify the end of his day--the "Lightsout" of his life--his "rest in peace."

The earliest known official reference to the mandatory use of "Taps" at military funeral ceremonies is found in the "Infantry Drill Regulations, United States Army" in 1891. It had been used unofficially long before that time under its former designation as the general bugle call for "To Extinguish Lights."

There are speculative accounts that the custom of sounding "Taps" at military funerals occurred in some regiments during the Mexican War, and, perhaps even as early as 1840 at West Point. However, it is evident that "Taps" in its present form and use at military funeral ceremonies did not become standard until after the Civil War.

Although the British Army has sounded a similar bugle call known as "Last Post" over soldiers' graves since 1885, the use of "Taps" is unique to the United States Military.

Today, "Taps" is sounded on trumpet or bugle and is heard at funerals, wreath-laying ceremonies, memorial services, and nightly in military installations at non-deployed locations to indicate that it is "lights out." When Taps is played, it is customary to salute if in uniform, or to place the right hand over the heart if out of uniform.

"Taps" is also sometimes known as "Butterfield's Lullaby," or by one of the popular lyrics, "Day is Done." Although there are no official words to "Taps," the following verses were published in 1911 in "Officer's Manual" by Col. James A. Moss:

Fades the light
And afar
Goeth day
Cometh night
And a star
Leadeth all
Speedeth all
To their rest.

Love, good night.
Must thou go
When the day
And the night
Leave me so?
Fare thee well;
Day is done
Night is on.

When your last
Day is past
From afar
Some bright star
O'er your grave
Watch will keep
While you sleep
With the brave

The following verses are some of the more popular verses today:

Fades the light,
Dims the sight,
And a star,
Gems the sky,
Gleaming bright,
From afar,
Drawing nigh,
Falls the night.

Day is done,
Gone the sun,
From the lakes,
From the hills,
From the sky,
All is well,
Safely rest,
God is nigh.

Thanks and praise,
For our days,
Neath the sun,
Neath the stars,
Neath the sky,
As we go,
This we know,
God is nigh.