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Palen Music Center Quick Note

Monday, November 26, 2012


Palen Music Center is dedicated to helping children experience excellence, personal growth, and joy through involvement in music. We carry out this mission by supporting area band directors through weekly service, support, educational programs, and quality products. This weekly Quick Note newsletter strives to highlight topics that are immediately helpful in the classroom. Comments, suggestions, ideas, and articles are always welcome.


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Taps: Fiction and Facts
By Paul Copenhaver

About this time every year inquiries and stories as to the origin of ‘Taps’ seem to circulate. Several urban myths have evolved that have about as much credibility as Elvis sightings, spaceship landings, and Bigfoot encounters.

One of the most prevalent stories relates how Union army Captain Robert Ellicombe heard the moans of a severely wounded soldier after a battle near Harrison’s Landing in Virginia. During the night, not knowing whether the moaning man was a Union or Confederate soldier, the captain decided to risk his life and bring the wounded man back for medical attention. He crawled on his stomach through the darkness, reached the man, and dragged him back to his encampment. Captain Ellicombe soon discovered the man was a Confederate soldier, and had died from his wounds. Furthermore, the dead man was his son!

The story continues by relating that the son had been studying music in the South prior to the war. Without telling his father, he had enlisted in the Confederate army.

Heartbroken, Captain Ellicombe asked his superiors to give his son a full military burial complete with a military band playing a funeral dirge. Since the dead soldier was a Confederate, the request was denied. However, out of respect for Captain Ellicombe, they granted him one musician---he chose a bugler. Captain Ellicombe asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he’d found on a piece of paper in his dead son’s uniform pocket. That wish was granted, and the haunting melody now known as ‘Taps’ was born.

There are no military records to prove the existence of a Captain Robert Ellicombe [or Ellison]. Perusals of unit histories of armies on both sides of the conflict do not reflect either his name or that of a son. The Ellicombe urban legend probably began in a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” newspaper cartoon in the 1930’s. Later, it appeared in a “Dear Abby” column, but after learning the truth she retracted the misinformation. It has also appeared in the Encyclopedia of True Facts, and has appeared in a number of military magazines. Also, the internet has perpetuated its telling.

According to Richard H. Schneider’s Taps: Notes from a Nation’s Heart, ‘Taps’ was written by New York’s General Daniel Adams Butterfield and bugler Private Oliver Wilcox Norton shortly after the Battle of Harrison’s Landing in July, 1862. Butterfield reportedly wanted something played by his bugler that would replace the signal ‘extinguish lights’ that was in use at the time. Butterfield had scribbled a few notes on paper, and asked Norton to play them. After some changes to notes and rhythm, the resulting composition was named ‘Taps,’ and Norton was directed to replace the old call with the new. Although no official order was made to change from the regulation call, it was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac. As it spread throughout the Union forces, it also came to be known as ‘Butterfield’s Lullaby.’

General Butterfield never specifically claimed he wrote [or composed] ‘Taps.’ ‘Taps’ is very close in composition to the last few measures of an earlier bugle call known as ‘Scott’s Tattoo,’ a bugle call included in many manuals before the Civil War began. However, General Butterfield, with the assistance of Oliver Norton, arranged the notes and rhythms. So, ‘Taps’ most likely did originate with General Butterfield himself.

‘Taps’ was first sounded over the grave of a soldier shortly after at the order of Captain John C. Tidwell. He was afraid the traditional firing of three rifle volleys over might draw enemy fire, so, remembering the haunting call he’d recently heard by General Butterfield’s bugler, he ordered ‘Taps’ to be sounded instead. The practice caught on, and, of course, became tradition at all military funerals.

It is also reported that Confederate forces heard and liked ‘Taps,’ and it soon began to be used in that army. One report suggests ‘Taps’ was played at General Stonewall Jackson’s funeral ten months after Harrison’s Landing. The Confederate Army’s Mounted Artillery Drill manual for 1863 states: “Taps will be blown at nine o’clock, at which time all officers and enlisted men must be in quarters.”

General Butterfield received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Gaines Mill in July, 1862. He composed several other bugle calls, including a signal for troops to advance, to halt, to lie prone, and to charge. He also devised a system of shoulder patches used to identify different corps, served as head of army recruiting, and recommended the Army adopt a new fife-and-drum manual.

General Butterfield’s father had a background as a stagecoach driver in the early 1800’s, and, seeing the need for long distance delivery systems for the freight and passengers, developed a network of stagecoach lines. These lines were known as the Butterfield line. In 1850, he merged with several other delivery companies to form the American Express Company [known now for credit cards]. The senior Butterfield later launched the Overland Stage Company, which delivered U. S. mail from coast to coast.

General Butterfield, after serving in the Army and U. S. Treasury Department, also worked in the American Express Company. He died in 1901.

Private Norton continued for some time as a bugler and color bearer, and fought at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. He later was commissioned as First Lieutenant, and received assignment as a regimental quartermaster for the Eighth U. S. Colored Regiment. [This was a courageous thing for a white man because of vengeance often levied against any white soldiers captured while serving with ‘colored’ units.] After the war, Norton worked in banking, and eventually moved to Chicago to go into business with his brother in the canning and sheet metal goods business. In 1901, the Nortons merged their company with a few other smaller firms and formed the American Can Company. He died in 1920.

Richard H. Schneider is a journalist and author, and has been a senior editor at Guideposts magazine. He is a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge.

Much of the author’s information comes from scholarly information received from U. S. Air Force Master Sergeant [retired] Jari A. Villanueva; probably the world’s foremost expert on ‘Taps.’ Master Sergeant Villanueva is the creator of the Arlington ‘Taps’ exhibit. He has sounded ‘Taps’ at Arlington and other cemeteries, Tombs of the Unknowns, and many important funerals and memorial services. He has an extensive website [] that covers the history, myths, performance guidelines, and other information about ‘Taps.’

Singer Randy Travis states: “When I hear the lonesome sound of ‘Taps’ I have mixed emotions. I get a feeling of sadness thinking about the men and women who gave their lives for their country, but also pride and a feeling of security knowing people are fighting for our liberty and freedom.” ‘Taps’ is a rather simple tune. It has only 24 notes. Yet, it is a haunting melody---clear, with sad tones conjuring up memories of loved ones lost, while instilling hope, bringing comfort, and peace. Although it is simple, it is one of the most difficult pieces a bugler or trumpeter will ever play.

Such a composition, used to honor our fallen heroes, pay tribute to our flag, and herald the end of another day, deserves to be distinguished by correct historical information regarding its origins, and not a fictional urban myth.

Taps: Notes from a Nation’s Heart
Richard H. Schneider

William Morrow
An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
ISBN 0-06-009693-4

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