Myth Trivia: The real story behind the song we know as ‘Taps’

Several stories have become urban legends about the origin of “Taps,” but the true story dates to July, 1862 during the Civil War.


CHARLOTTE, North Carolina, September 15, 2016 – If you have ever been to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, or ever have the opportunity to go, you will never forget the haunting sound of “Taps” when it emanates from the carillon in the center of the memorial.

September 11 has passed for the 15th time since the horror that took place in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, but the images of that fateful day will live on forever.

No other piece of music is as poignant and appropriate as those simple notes so familiar to us all. No other tune is necessary.

“Taps” is actually a revision to the music that was played at the end of the day as a signal to “Extinguish Lights” or “Lights Out.” Though the British have a similar call that has been played at soldier’s memorials since 1885, “Taps” is uniquely American.

Several stories have become urban legends about the origin of “Taps” but the true story dates to July, 1862 during the Civil War.

General Daniel Butterfield of the Union Army adapted the song from an earlier version of a day’s end signal known as “Tattoo.” The “Tattoo” was played an hour before bedtime to tell troops to prepare for the nighttime roll call before bed.

Following what was known as the Seven Days Battle during the Peninsular Campaign of 1862, Butterfield decided to write a call that would honor his men as they camped at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia. It was Butterfield’s belief that the traditional call for “Lights Out” was too formal.

The general summoned brigade bugler Oliver Willcox Norton to his tent to rearrange the music. Since Butterfield could neither read nor write music, he had Norton put the notes on paper by “lengthening some notes and shortening others.”

In a letter to the editor of a newspaper called “The Century”, Butterfield wrote, “I called in some one who could write music, and practiced a change in the call of Taps until I had it suit my ear, and then, got it to my taste without being able to write music or knowing the technical name of any note…”

There are some discrepancies between the accounts of Norton and Butterfield. For example, Norton claims that music Butterfield gave him had been written on the back of an envelope. Butterfield, on the other hand, claimed he could neither read nor write music.

The differences were minor however, and this story is said to be genuine.

Initially the “Tattoo” was sounded somewhat like “Last Call” at a bar telling soldiers to stop drinking and return to their garrisons.

Research shows that the early version of the “Tattoo” appeared in three manuals of Winfield Scott in 1835, Samuel Cooper’s manual in 1836 and again in the William Gilham manual of 1861. The Scott “Tattoo” was used for 35 years from 1835 to 1860.

Just prior to the Civil War, a second “Tattoo” replaced the Scott version and was used throughout the conflict.

But there are some other fascinating historical bits of trivia related to the story. Butterfield resigned from the military in 1870 and returned to work with American Express.

Among his duties was heading up numerous special public ceremonies, including the funeral of General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1891.

Butterfield also designed the system of Corps Badges which had unique shapes and color combinations which were used to identify individual units.

Though he never attended West Point, Butterfield’s tomb at the United States Military Academy is the most ornate monument in the cemetery. He died in 1901.

The old joke asks, “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” and though the answer is obvious, General Daniel Butterfield is also honored at a monument very near the New York City landmark for General Grant.

Oddly enough, there is no indication on either marker at West Point or in New York City that mentions “Taps” or Butterfield’s contribution to the song. However, the music was sounded at his funeral.

Today “Taps” is mandatory at military funeral ceremonies which became a part of the U.S. Army Infantry Drill Regulations in 1891. Unofficially it had been played long before that, though it was sounded under the original title of “Extinguish Lights.”

The melody is solemn and haunting as it should be. Simply put, when you hear “Taps” the music is nothing less than “Lights Out.”

Contact Bob at Google+

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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