Diane Kalas, Inspirational Historical Romance Author

“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick; but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life.” Proverbs 13:12 (KJV)





Saturday, May 5, 2012

150th Year Anniversary of "TAPS," A Tribute

Civil War Reenactor/Bugler sounding Taps 

My Tribute to TAPS
150th YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF TAPS

Just twenty-four notes, played on a simple bugle, and it’s known around the world. There’s never been such a powerful tune as Taps, able to pull the tender emotions to the surface of everyone within hearing distance. Long after the last poignantly clear note fades away, what remains is the quiet assurance that Taps was the perfect ending.

I have a quote of baseball's legend Yogi Berra from Richard Schneider’s book TAPSNotes from a Nation’s Heart. “I probably first heard “Taps” when I was in the Navy, in boot training in 1943. You always heard that bugle when the flag was lowered. In a few months, I was sent overseas for duty on a rocket boat off Normandy – D day. Hearing it afterward was heartbreaking.”

While “Taps” is blown at Boy Scout camps to signal the end of the day, at flag raising or wreath laying ceremonies, or to commemorate the tragic attack on Pearl Harbor or the twin towers in New York City, what we most associate “Taps” with are funerals. Both police and fire departments blow “Taps” to honor their fallen heroes. Military personnel have been laid to rest by the thousands to the trumpet sounding “Taps” as a final tribute to those who sacrificed their very lives for others.
Arlington National Cemetery

Long ago, all military leaders needed a way to communicate with their men, to give daily orders or to direct their battles. In the 1700s, the fife and drum handled the job. The problem was that only worked in ideal circumstances, not during the escalating drama of a battlefield confrontation that made the fife and drum impossible to hear. The valve-less bugle, limited to five notes, came into use.

For 150 years, “Taps” has been blown in its present form. I assumed that the “Taps” that we hear today always sounded the same through the decades and in every nation. Not true. The real story of “Taps” is less heroic in its infancy. Not until our American Civil War, that tragic conflict and one particular battle, did the arrangement for “Taps” change.

Many stories abound about the origin of the word “Taps.” Words like Tattoo or Tap Toe originate from the Dutch, English, and the French. I like the twofold explanation that Dutch commanders used a drummer to signal the troops, on leave in town, to tap toe, meaning to return to barracks or camp, and also to warn tavern owners to turn the taps “to” or off, in their taverns, so the soldiers would return to barracks or camp. 

The last week in June 1862, the Seven Days Campaign ended with 3,200 Union dead to 5,300 Confederate dead. General McClellan retreated in July 1862, with 140,000 Union men and encamped along the James River in southern Virginia at Harrison’s Landing. Over the surrounding area and inside Berkley Plantation’s manor house were severely wounded and dying soldiers. The battle with the Confederates had been brutal and now all thoughts that the Army of the Potomac, under General George McClellan, would end the Civil War within a year evaporated.

As a result of General McClellan’s retreat, President Lincoln visited the indecisive general on July 8 and 9, 1862, at the Berkley Plantation at Harrison’s Landing. I can only imagine the tone of that meeting between a reluctant general and his commander in chief.

Tombs of the Unknown - Arlington National Cemetery

Brigadier General Daniel Adams Butterfield (1831-1901), commander of the Third Brigade, First Division, of the Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, was in his early thirties and intelligent, he even studied law in New York. A compassionate man, he opted to stay outside with his men, instead of being housed in the Berkley Plantation, a home built by a signer of the Declaration of Independence and home to Benjamin Harrison, America’s twenty-third president.

I picture General Butterfield sitting beside a canvas tent, using a camp chair at his portable desk, and writing his daily report. Considering that he had been wounded the previous week in the Seven Days campaign, and later earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery, I find this character trait of humility fascinating.

Some say Butterfield was musical and played the bugle, and admitted that he never liked the harsh regulation call at the end of day. When it was time to signal “extinguish lights,” he summoned his brigade bugler and handed Oliver Norton (1839-1920) an envelope where he had written a new arrangement in pencil. For these minor matters, brigade commanders were allowed authority to make changes or substitutions.

The next day, other brigade buglers came by for a copy of the haunting call that was referred to as “Butterfield’s Lullaby.” Not long afterward, Confederate buglers were heard using the same call. For two armies on opposing sides “Taps” united them in this small way.

Arlington National Cemetery


The first record of “Taps” being played at a military funeral happened while McClellan was still at Harrison’s Landing. At that time, there was little ground troop engagement, but they did exchange shell fire along the James River. A Union artillery soldier manning cannon was killed. John C. Tidball, the battery captain, had a dilemma. He did not want the Confederates to think they were being fired upon by Union infantry, and decided not to risk the traditional three rifle volleys fired over the grave. Instead, he ordered “Taps.”


Not until 1874, did “Taps” become officially recognized by the US Army. In 1891, “Taps became standard at military funeral ceremonies.

Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield
Both General Butterfield and Private Oliver Norton were men who accomplished a great deal in civilian life. The Butterfield name could be seen on the side of stagecoach lines his father started and he inherited, later to become America’s first overland express service. After a successful business career, he turned to politics and ran for mayor in Utica, New York. Norton moved to Chicago and went into canning and sheet metal goods, and then merged with smaller businesses to form the American Can Company.  


“Taps,” those heartwarming twenty-four notes, composed by Daniel Butterfield, and played by Oliver Norton, found a prominent place, during a turbulent time in American history. There is a monument on the grounds of Berkley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia. Overlooking the James River you can press a button on the plaque and hear “Taps,” “Butterfield’s Lullaby.”  If you have the opportunity to travel to Virginia, visit Berkley Plantation and let your imagination take you back to the first time “Taps” was heard in 1862.

Today, the military uses both the bugle and the trumpet in playing “Taps.” Unfortunately, the WWII generation is dying off by the hundreds every day, forcing the use of electronic recordings to replace a live call.

In closing, I want to quote the invocation delivered by Chaplain (Colonel) Edward Brogan (USAF Ret) at the “Taps” Exhibit Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, May 28, 1999: “Lord of our lives, our hope in death, we cannot listen to “Taps” without our souls stirring. Its plaintive notes are a prayer in music – of hope, of peace, of grief, of rest. . . . Prepare us too, Lord, for our final bugle call when you summon us home! When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and death will be no more.”

"The President's Own" US Marine Corps Band Bugler

1. Berkley Plantation – Birth Place of Taps -  www.berkeleyplantation.com
2. Schneider, Richard H., TAPS: NOTES FROM A NATION’S HEART, New York, Harper Collins, 2002
3. US Army Bands, Internet – www.TapsBugleCall
4. Villanueva, Jari, www.tapsbugler.com 2012, www.Taps150.org
5. Wright, John D., AMERICAN HISTORY: TIMELINE OF THE CIVIL WAR, United Kingdom, Amber Books Ltd., 2007