Herald and Journal Herald & Journal, May 18, 1998

A sound of comfort and peace

By MYRON HEUER

At military funerals and Memorial Day ceremonies across the nation, plaintive bugle notes are heard that bring a lump to the throat.

The melody is known as "taps." Few of us know of the origin of America's most inspiring piece of military music.

Taps was not composed by a musician. Daniel Butterfield, a Union general in the Civil War, composed taps.

Butterfield's unit had taken part in a pitched battle near Richmond, Va. The battle had not gone well. After the fight they withdrew the Army of the Potomac to nearby Harrison's Landing.

The army's morale was low. The younger volunteers were homesick. Even the older men's thoughts were of their families they left up north.

As night fell, Butterfield's thoughts were on musical phrases that would express the hush that hung over the army of tents, where thousands of men slept while sentries kept watch. At last, he settled upon a combination of sounds that he hoped would bring comfort and peace to the tired and troubled men.

The next morning, July 2, 1862, he called in his brigade bugler, Oliver W. Norton, and whistled his melody as the surprised bugler listened. After hearing, Norton blew the call several times. Butterfield whistled and hummed some changes. Norton, who soon had the call down perfectly, wrote the seven notes on the back of an envelope and played it at dusk that same evening.

As Norton later wrote, "The music was beautiful on that still summer night, and was heard beyond the limits of the Butterfield brigade as it echoed through the valleys. The next morning buglers from other brigades came to visit and to inquire about the new taps and learn how to sound it."

It was soon being used throughout the Army of the Potomac.

A few days later, a soldier died. Normally, he would be honored by having his own squad fire three rifle volleys over his grave. However, the Army of the Potomac was surrounded.

Fearing that rifle volleys might provoke new fighting by the Rebels, the commander told the bugler, "Just sound taps."

This was the first use of the call at a military funeral.

Soon the entire Union Army was using taps. It has been said that the Confederates also adopted taps, using it at the burial of Stonewall Jackson in 1863. Taps was officially adopted by the Army in 1874. By 1900, all United States military services were using taps, and France even adopted the American call during World War I.

At the end of World War I, Gen. John J. Pershing called in Hartley B. Edwards, an American soldier to sound the final taps.

Edwards later recalled, "It was 11 o'clock in the morning. I played it but didn't know why until some Frenchmen rushed by shouting that the war was over."

Edwards' bugle, which probably cost the government $5 in 1918, is now at the Smithsonian.

Butterfield received the Medal of Honor for bravery near Richmond, Va. about the time he composed taps. He was severely wounded at Gettysburg by the heavy cannon fire that preceded Pickett's Charge, but did not retire actively until he fell victim to fever during Sherman's March to the sea.

He retired from the Army in 1870 to serve in the Treasury Department under President Grant. He later became a prominent business man. When old age forced him to seek a less active life, he retired to his home in Cold Spring, N.Y., overlooking the Hudson River. In the evening, he could hear the West Point bugler across the river sound taps.

Butterfield died in 1901 and was buried with full military honors at West Point, including the playing of the saddest song of all, his beloved taps.

Day is done, gone the sun

From the lakes, from the hills,

From the skies, all is well,

Safely rest, God is nigh.


Back to Myron Heuer Menu | Back to Columns Menu

Howard Lake Herald & Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal
Stories | Columns | Classifieds | Obituaries
Community Guides | Special Topics | Cool Stuff | SEARCH | Home Page