Monday, October 31, 2016


Taps: Fiction and Facts by Paul Copenhaver

Every year around Veterans Day and Memorial Day 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 started after the Civil War. It 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, Captain Ellicombe 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 written 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.

It is a touching story! However, 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. The story has appeared in the Encyclopedia of True Facts, and 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 aforementioned Battle of Harrison's Landing in July, 1862. General Butterfield reportedly wanted something played by his bugler that would replace the bugle 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 the two men made some changes to the notes and rhythm, the resulting composition was named 'Taps.' Private 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 Private 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 at the order of Union army 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 the call 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."

After the war, 'Taps' was made the official Army bugle call, however, it was not until 1874 that the title or name 'Taps' became official. In 1891 that Army infantry regulations were put in place to require 'Taps' to be sounded at military funerals. Today the military plays 'Taps' at burial and memorial services, to signal the 'lights out' command at day's end, and when the flag is lowered.

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, it 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 brothers merged their company with a few other smaller firms and formed the American Can Company. He died in 1920.

Taps: Notes from a Nation's Heart [ISBN 0-06-009693-4] author Richard H. Schneider is a journalist and author, and has been a senior editor at Guideposts magazine. He is a veteran of World War II's Battle of the Bulge.

Much of Schneider'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.


Paul Copenhaver

Paul Copenhaver is in his 44th year of teaching, and is currently band director at St. Pius X School in Moberly. Prior to St Pius, he was Director of Bands for the Moberly Public Schools for 33 years. He is also assistant conductor/principal trumpet for the Columbia Community Band, a member of the ShowMe Brass, and a founding member of the Harmonium Brass Quintet. He has judged bands in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Indiana, and Ohio, and has presented clinics at various local, state, and national conferences. He has also served as a Missouri State High School Activities Association Adjudicator Trainer, and on the MSHSAA’s Graded Music Committee, Sight Reading Committee, and Music Advisory Committee. He is a Past President of the Missouri Bandmasters Association and the Missouri Music Educators Association. Additionally, he received a 2005 National Federation of High School Associations Outstanding Music Educator for Missouri and the NFHS Midwest Region Outstanding Music Educator Award in 2006. He was elected to the Missouri Bandmasters Association Hall of Fame in 2010, and the Missouri Music Educators Hall of Fame in 2014.




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