HARRISBURG, PA.-PRNewswire/ Each Memorial Day, ceremonies across the country echo with the sound of a plaintive bugle call, played to honor those who died in America's wars. The call is "Taps" and it dates back to the American Civil War.
"There are some heart-warming myths about 'Taps,'" warns George Hicks, the executive director of the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Museum, which opened in 2001, has 65,000 square feet of exhibit space that tells the story of the entire conflict, without sectional bias.
The Museum's exhibit about Civil War music includes six battered and tarnished bugles that served during the conflict. Visitors can use headphones to hear several bugle calls, including "Taps."
The Museum includes "Taps" on its list of Civil War "firsts" because during the war it emerged as the army's bugle call to signal lights out.
The man responsible for "Taps" as we know it today was the Union's Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield. Born in Utica, New York, in 1831, Butterfield commanded a brigade in General George McClellan's Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, when the Union attempted to capture Richmond. The Confederates, under General Robert E. Lee, beat back the Union offensive in a series of intense battles known as the Seven Days' campaign.
During that campaign Butterfield distinguished himself at Gaines' Mill and Malvern Hill. Thirty years after the war he received the Medal of Honor for his bravery at the former battle; at the latter he received the wounds that would lead to "Taps."
As an officer, Butterfield had a rudimentary knowledge of how to play the bugle and sound calls to direct his troops. He had also written out a short, nine-note call he used when he wanted his buglers to attract the attention of only his own soldiers. His men soon added their own words:
"Dan, Dan, Dan, Butterfield, Butterfield."
Or, as their general recalled, they had alternate words when they weren't feeling happy with their commander:
"Damn, damn, damn, Butterfield, Butterfield."
Such calls played an important role during the Civil War. In camp bugles signaled the start of the day with "Reveille" and directed activities throughout the day from "Breakfast Call" to lights out. Soldiers formed up to "Assembly," broke camp to "Boots and Saddles," and reported to the surgeon after "Sick Call."
Bugles also directed troops in combat. A regiment of cavalry might have as many as 25 buglers. When cavalry under General James H. Wilson attacked a Confederate force at the Battle of Front Royal, Virginia, in September 1864, some 250 buglers guided the Union forces through a dense fog.
"I'm reminded of one of the things that Confederate General Robert E. Lee said," says Hicks: "We could have never had a war without music."
At the start of the war the army signaled lights out with the "Tattoo," a bugle call that may have received its name from the Dutch expression "tap toe," which meant it was time to shut off the taps in the drinking establishments so soldiers would return to camp.
Butterfield thought the "Tattoo" was too harsh to help soldiers relax. One night as he was recuperating from his wounds in his tent at the army's base at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, Butterfield scratched out some notes on an envelope. Most accounts say it was an adaptation of a French bugle call, which Butterfield may have known from a military manual General Winfield Scott compiled in 1835.
Then Butterfield summoned Private Oliver Willcox Norton to his tent. Norton, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher before the war, was the bugler for Butterfield's brigade.
Butterfield had Norton play the notes on his envelope, requesting small changes until it was just as he liked it. "After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call for Taps thereafter, in place of the regulation call," Norton recalled in a letter to Century magazine in 1898.
Norton played "Taps" that evening. "The music was beautiful on that still summer night," he wrote, "and was heard far beyond the limits of our Brigade." The next morning buglers from other units stopped by, asking for copies of the music. Although "Taps" would become the army's official lights out call until 1867, it was soon taken up throughout the Union forces.
"Taps" also made its way across Confederate lines, as music often did. "The soldiers would frequently engage in band concerts or singing fests around the fire at night and many are the tales that they would alternate," Hicks says. "The Confederates, poised on the edge of battle, would sing one song and then they'd yell across the lines, 'Alright Yank, let's hear one of yours.'"