Monday, June 25, 2012

Who Wrote the Bugle Call Taps?


     The 24 notes of the hauntingly mournful bugle call we call Taps are heard frequently across America these days as our military dead continue to be returned from Afghanistan for burial.
For many years after the Civil War, legend had it that Gen. Daniel A. Butterfield composed this call in 1862, which means its 150th birthday is coming up next month.
Writing about bugle calls in the August 1898 issue of The Century Magazine, Gustav Kobbé stirred up a hornet’s nest among Civil War veterans with his article, "The Trumpet in Camp and Battle."  Kobbé was a respected music critic and opera expert.
After tracing many of the U.S. Army’s bugle calls to the French army of Napoleon, Kobbé admitted, "In speaking of our trumpet calls I purposely omitted one with which it seemed most appropriate to close this article, for it is the call which closes the soldier's day, Lights Out. I have not been able to trace this call to any other service."
In order to profit from the battle experience gained in the Civil War and faced with a downsized army, in 1866 the War Department had assigned Lt. Col. Emory Upton to head a board of officers at West Point charged with creating a new tactical manual.
Upton, the Army’s most brilliant strategist, asked Major Truman Seymour to compile a system of bugle calls to be incorporated into the new tactical manual to be published in1867.
Referring to the “Lights Out” call, Kobbé concluded, "If it seems probable it was original with Major Seymour, he has given our army the most beautiful of trumpet-calls." Taps was still called "Lights Out" in the post-Civil War Army.
Kobbé's article prompted a letter from Oliver W. Norton, who said he knew the origin of the bugle call and claimed he was the first to play it.
Writing from Chicago, Norton, a successful businessman who would later found the American Can Company, said in his letter, "Mr. Kobbé says he has been unable to trace the origin of the call now used for Taps, or ’Go to Sleep,’ as it is generally called by soldiers. During the early part of the Civil War, I was bugler at the headquarters of Butterfield’s Brigade.
“Up to July, 1862, the Infantry call for Taps was that set down in [Gen. Silas] Casey’s Tactics, which Mr. Kobbé says was borrowed from the French. One day, soon after the seven days battles on the Peninsular, when the Army of the Potomac was lying in camp at Harrison's Landing, General Daniel Butterfield, then commanding our brigade, sent for me, and showing me some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, asked me to sound them on my bugle.”
Norton's letter continued, “I did this several times, playing the music as written. He changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me. After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call for Taps thereafter in place of the regulation call.  The music was beautiful on that still summer night, and was heard far beyond the limits of our brigade.” 
Oliver Norton went on to describe how the next day he was visited by buglers from neighboring brigades who wanted copies of the music. The call was gradually taken up throughout the Army of the Potomac. Later the tune was carried by buglers to troops fighting with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee. Rapidly making its way through the entire Union Army, it eventually became accepted as a regulation U.S. Army bugle call.
Acting on a suggestion in Norton’s letter, the editor of The Century Magazine wrote to General Butterfield. Replying from his home "Cragside" in Cold Spring, N.Y., the 67-year-old Butterfield confirmed the Norton account:
“I recall, in dim memory, the substantial truth of the statement made by Norton about bugle calls. His letter gave the impression I personally wrote the notes for the call.
“The call of Taps did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be, and 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, as Norton writes, got it to my taste without being able to write music or knowing the technical name of any note, but, simply by ear, arranged it as Norton describes. I did not recall him in connection with it, but his story is substantially correct.”
Butterfield may not have written the bugle call we now know as Taps, but he certainly deserves credit as the arranger of today’s version of the call.
The first time the Butterfield version of Taps was sounded at a military funeral may have been when Union Capt. John Tidball ordered it played at the burial ceremony for a cannoneer killed in action. Not wanting to set off return fire from edgy Confederate troops nearby, Tidball substituted Taps for the traditional three rifle volleys fired over the grave.
 Taps was also played at the funeral of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson nearly a year later. By 1891, Army infantry regulations required Taps to be played at military funeral ceremonies, and the tune is still used to signal "lights out" at the end of the day.

Other Claims to Authorship
According to a widely circulated account, the tune was born in 1862 when Union Capt. Robert Ellicombe heard a soldier moaning on a battlefield near Harrison's Landing, Virginia. He decided to investigate and found that the injured soldier wearing a Confederate uniform had died.
In the light of his lantern, Captain Ellicombe discovered to his horror that the dead soldier was his son, who had been a music student in the South and had enlisted in the Confederate Army without telling his father.
He found in his son's jacket a scrap of paper on which a staff and 24 music notes had been penciled. Captain Ellicombe's request that his son be given a full military funeral was denied. Instead of a military band, he was allowed one musician, a bugler, who played his son's song at the funeral. Thus the bugle call Taps came into being, and the tradition of playing it at military funerals and memorial ceremonies began.
This touching story has become an intriguing urban legend--but it's just that, a legend. Like so many legends, it has no basis in fact. No evidence exists that a Captain Robert Ellicombe ever served in the Union Army of the Potomac. Ironically, cartoonist and author Robert L. Ripley died on May 27, 1949, after filming a segment on the 13th episode of his TV program, "Believe It or Not." The subject was a retelling of the Ellicombe story.

Still Another Version of the Taps Story
Another account claims the song was indeed written by a Butterfield--Milton Butterfield, a Confederate soldier from Alabama and no relation to Daniel Butterfield. As a bugler home on leave in Alabama, he regaled relatives and friends with an account of how he had composed "burial music," and told of being asked to play an appropriate song at a burial ceremony after the fall of Vicksburg. He then played for his family the song he had composed. It turned out to be the song we know today as Taps."
Spoilsports may point out that Vicksburg did not surrender until July of 1863, by which time General  Butterfield’s version of the call was being played regularly by buglers on both sides.
Milton Butterfield rejoined his unit, which was sent to Chickamauga, Tennessee, where he served as clerk of the Court Martial Court. In a letter to his family, he reported that a meeting had been arranged under a flag of truce for him to visit with Union Gen. Daniel A. Butterfield.
During this meeting, he told General Butterfield of his "burial music." When the general expressed interest in it, he wrote the simple tune on the back of an envelope and gave it to him.
Milton Butterfield, who was attached to a scouting party, was killed during the siege of Atlanta and is buried at Stone Mountain, Georgia. As so often happens with legends, substantiating documents, including the letter from Chickamauga, were conveniently lost during the family’s frequent moves after the war.

Research Reveals the True Story
Musicologists familiar with military music have traced the European roots of the 24-note bugle call we know as Taps.
Taps actually existed in an earlier version of the Tattoo call used to notify soldiers to stop the evening's drinking and return to quarters. Tattoo was sounded about an hour before the final call of the day to extinguish all fires and lighting devices such as candles and lanterns. The words Tattoo and Taps are alterations of the obsolete word "taptoo," derived from the Dutch "taptoe." Taptoe was the command meaning to shut the tap of a keg.
The mournful melody predates the Civil War. The melody of Taps is close to the last five and a quarter bars of what was called the Scott Tattoo (after Gen. Winfield Scott), a call included in many tactical manuals published well before the Civil War.
Daniel Butterfield never claimed credit for the bugle call that was sometimes called “Butterfield’s Lullaby.” He may not have written the bugle call we now know as Taps, but he certainly deserves credit as the arranger of today’s version of the call.
Who wrote the bugle call Taps? Like so many  cultural mysteries, the identity of the original composer of Taps and the date of its creation are today lost in the mists of history.

Robert Scott is a semi-retired book publisher and local historian. He lives in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

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