Fact Check

The Origins of 'Taps'

An old rumor tells of how the "Taps" military bugle song supposedly originated from a composition found in a dead soldier's pocket.

Published Oct 28, 2008

Updated Apr 10, 2022
 (Flickr/frankieleon)
Image Via Flickr/frankieleon
Claim:
The composition for the melody known as "Taps" was found in the pocket of a dead soldier on a Civil War battlefield.

What are the origins of "Taps" and who wrote it? It's hard to feel surprised when a melody as hauntingly beautiful as this one picks up a legend about how it came to be written — it's too mournfully direct a piece for the mere truth to suffice. The old and false rumor mentioned that "Taps" originated from the pocket of a dead soldier during the American Civil War in 1862.

The Viral Stories

One version of the "Taps" origins rumor was posted on Facebook in 2014. We took notice and updated this article when the post surged with hundreds of thousands of new shares in April 2022:

It read as follows:

I never knew.. DID YOU?

If any of you have ever been to a military funeral in which taps was played; this brings out a new meaning of it.

Here is something Every American should know.

We in the United States have all heard the haunting song, "Taps..." It's the song that gives us the lump in our throats and usually tears in our eyes.

But, do you know the story behind the song? If not, I think you will be interested to find out about its humble beginnings.

Reportedly, it all began in 1862 during the Civil War, when Union Army Captain Robert Elli was with his men near Harrison's Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land.

During the night, Captain Elli heard the moans of a soldier who lay severely wounded on the field. Not knowing if it was a Union or Confederate soldier, the Captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention. Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the Captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment...

When the Captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead.

The Captain lit a lantern and suddenly caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier. It was his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, the boy enlisted in the Confederate Army.

At this point in the purported "Taps" origins rumor Facebook post, the "Captain" realizes he has come upon his own deceased son who was fighting on the other side. The tale also mentions that his son "had been studying music." It continues:

The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial, despite his enemy status. His request was only partially granted.

The Captain had asked if he could have a group of Army band members play a funeral dirge for his son at the funeral.

The request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate.

But, out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him only one musician.

The Captain chose a bugler. He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of the dead youth's uniform.

This wish was granted.

The haunting melody, we now know as 'Taps' used at military funerals was born.

This version of the "Taps" origins rumor that appeared in the social media post then mentions the following lyrics:

The words are:

Day is done.
Gone the sun.
From the lakes
From the hills.
From the sky.
All is well.
Safely rest.
God is nigh.

Fading light.
Dims the sight.
And a star.
Gems the sky.
Gleaming bright.
From afar.
Drawing nigh.
Falls the night.

Thanks and praise.
For our days.
Neath the sun
Neath the stars.
Neath the sky
As we go.
This we know.
God is nigh

The post then adds some commentary and finishes up the supposed "Taps" origin story by asking users to share the misleading post:

I too have felt the chills while listening to 'Taps' but I have never seen all the words to the song until now. I didn't even know there was more than one verse. I also never knew the story behind the song and I didn't know if you had either so I thought I'd pass it along.

I now have an even deeper respect for the song than I did before.

Remember Those Lost and Harmed While Serving Their Country.

Also Remember Those Who Have Served And Returned; and for those presently serving in the Armed Forces.

Please send this on after a short prayer.

Make this a Prayer wheel for our soldiers ... please don't break it.

I didn't!

An older version of the same purported "Taps" origins rumor went around with the following alterations:

It all began in 1862 during the Civil War, when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison's Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land.

During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moan of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the field. Not knowing if it was a Union or Confederate soldier, the captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention.

Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment. When the captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead.

The captain lit a lantern.

Suddenly, he caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier. It was his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, he had enlisted in the Confederate Army.

The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status.

His request was partially granted. The captain had asked if he could have a group of Army band members play a funeral dirge for the son at the funeral.

That request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate. Out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him only one musician.

The captain chose a bugler. He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of his dead son's uniform. This wish was granted. This music was the haunting melody we now know as "Taps" that is used at all military funerals.

The Origins of 'Taps'

Here's the truth. The melody was composed in July 1862 at Harrison's Landing in Virginia. Aside from that basic fact, the fanciful piece quoted above in no way reflects the reality of the true origins of "Taps."

There was no dead son, Confederate or otherwise; no lone bugler sounding out the dead boy's last composition. How the call came into being was never anything more than one influential soldier's deciding his unit could use a bugle call for particular occasions and setting about to come up with one.

If anyone can be said to have composed "Taps," it was Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, during the American Civil War. Dissatisfied with the customary firing of three rifle volleys at the conclusion of burials during battle and also wanting a less harsh bugle call for ceremonially signaling the end of a soldier's day, he likely altered an older piece known as "Tattoo," a French bugle call used to signal "lights out," into the call we now know as "Taps."

Summoning his brigade's bugler, Private Oliver Willcox Norton, to his tent one evening in July 1862, Butterfield (whether he wrote "Taps" straight from the cuff or improvised something new by rearranging an older work) worked with the bugler to transform the melody into its present form. As Private Norton later wrote of that occasion:

General Daniel Butterfield ... showing me some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, asked me to sound them on my bugle. 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. The next day I was visited by several buglers from neighboring brigades, asking for copies of the music, which I gladly furnished. I think no general order was issued from army headquarters authorizing the substitution of this for the regulation call, but as each brigade commander exercised his own discretion in such minor matters, the call was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac.

"Taps" was quickly taken up by both sides of the conflict, and within months was being sounded by buglers in both Union and Confederate forces.

'Taps' in Present Day

Then as now, "Taps" serves as a vital component in ceremonies honoring military dead. It is also understood by American servicemen as an end-of-day "lights out" signal.

When "Taps" is played at a military funeral, protocol calls for military members to salute if in uniform, or place one's hand over one's heart if not.

In sum, if readers were curious about the origins of "Taps" and who wrote it, the truth might not be found in viral posts shared on social media.

Sources:

Ayres, Thomas. "That's Not in My American History Book." Dallas, Taylor Publishing, 2000.

Deall, Tom. "Taps Stirs Hearts Despite Unsure Origin." The Times-Picayune, 1999.

Schneider, Richard H. "Taps: Notes from a Nation's Heart." New York, William Morrow, 2002.

Vogel, Steve. "A Call That Lingers in the Heart." The Washington Post, 1999.

Updates

This story was updated with information about a viral Facebook post.

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