Americans honor the fallen with "Taps"

May 26, 2008

NATIONAL - Across the country on Memorial Day, Americans gather in parks and cemeteries and at war monuments to recall, at least for a few moments, that the day is more than an excuse for a three-day holiday. Most of those ceremonies will end the same way, with the sounding of "Taps."

It is a brief song, only 24 notes long. It is a simple song, traditionally played on a simple instrument. The military bugle, the instrument of choice, is little more than a tapered horn of brass, folded around on itself, and with no mechanical parts. A military bugle is tuned to the key of B flat.

Do You
Know the Words?

There are no official lyrics to "Taps," but through the years words have been attached to the music. Jari Villanueva says that almost as soon as "Taps" was played during the Civil War, soldiers started singing "Go to sleep, go to sleep..."

The following words are considered the most popular modern version, which many people learned in scout camp:

Day is done,
gone the Sun,
From the hills, from the lake, from the sky.
All is well,
safely rest,
God is nigh.

But "Taps" was not written as a song of mourning or as a song of commemoration. It was just the last in a series of bugle calls played in Civil War military encampments to mark the events of a soldier's day. The day started with "First Call," the tune used nowadays at racecourses to call the horses to the track. Until one night in July of 1862, the trooper's day ended with the call "Extinguish Lights." In between were as many as 31 other calls, which all officers were expected to be able to blow and which all soldiers were required to recognize.

The acknowledged authority on "Taps" is Jari A. Villanueva. Official U.S. military Web sites defer to Villanueva when it comes to the history of "Taps," and Villanueva maintains a Web site,,  devoted to the song.

Villanueva writes that no one can be credited as the author of "Taps," which is an adaptation rather than an original composition. As an adaptation, however, it is the work of Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Civil War commander of the 12th Regiment of the New York Militia during the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia. Butterfield thought "Extinguish Lights," the call traditionally played to mark the end of the day, was too formal in sound. Although Butterfield could not read or write music, he already had composed a bugle call unique to his regiment, to avoid confusion during battle. So he worked with his regimental bugler, Oliver Wilcox Norton, and turned another bugle call, "Tattoo," into "Taps."

"Taps" became the call to end the day for the 12th Regiment, and the song carried. Neighboring brigades picked it up, and it spread through the Union army. Villaneueva says that some Conferedate units also began using "Taps." But Butterfield did not name the song; it was simply his regiment's version of "Extinguish Lights;" bugle calls were identified by their purpose. According to a chronology on the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs Web site, the music was made an official U. S. Army bugle call at the end of the Civil War, but was not given the name "Taps" until 1874.

Meanwhile, "Taps" was acquiring a role in military funerals. The first known instance, according to Villanueva, came in 1862, the year the song was developed. Traditionally, the burial of a soldier was saluted with three volleys. But when it came time to inter a cannoneer killed in battle, Capt. John C. Tidball worried that the sound of gunfire would draw fire from nearby Confederate troops. So he ordered the sounding of "Taps" instead. In 1891, the use of "Taps" during military funerals was published in the army's Infantry Drill Regulations.

That funeral is commemorated in a stained glass chapel window at Fort Monroe in Virginia. The historic Berkeley Plantation at Harrison's Landing, Va., where Butterfield's troops were bivouacked in 1862, celebrates itself as the birthplace of "Taps." Butterfield, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during the Civil War Battle of Gaines Mill is buried at West Point (which he did not attend) and is honored by a statue in a New York City park. Neither of those monuments, however, makes mention of his role in devising "Taps."

But "Taps" needs no monuments. It is its own memorial, a simple tune born in battle, a call now to remember those who did not return.