The melancholy notes of the lone bugle are iconic. Taps is the traditional bugle call for military funerals and flag ceremonies. But how did it all start?
Early History and Evolution of Taps
At first, Taps had very little to do with mourning. The bugle call was actually a signal to soldiers for “lights out” and to go to sleep for the night. The Taps we hear today is a variation on the bugle call Scotts Tattoo — one of many bugle calls used to signal the end of the day. The term tattoo comes from the Dutch phrase doe den tap toe, which means to “turn off the taps.” Essentially, Scott’s Tattoo was used as a signal to stop the day’s drinking and head to bed.
According to the article The Origin of “Taps” by MSG Michael A. Parnell, during the Civil War, General Butterfield summoned Private Oliver Wilcox Norton — the brigade bugler — to his tent. General Butterfield felt the current bugle call was too formal. He asked his bugler to compose something different.
In an 1898 interview for Century Magazine, General Butterfield said, “The call of ‘Taps’ did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be, and I called in someone who could write music and practiced a change in the call of ‘Taps’ until I had it suit my ear.”
Private Norton, in his own 1898 interview with the magazine, said that “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.”
The Signal Spreads to Military Funerals
Soon, the new version of Taps spread throughout the Union Army. Eventually, even the Confederates adopted it.
The first recorded instance for using Taps at a military funeral occurred in 1862. A soldier was killed in action, but the army was in a concealed position. They couldn’t perform the customary rifle volley over the grave, because it would signal the enemy and expose their position.
Instead, the captain ordered the bugler to play Taps. As MSG Parnell explains, “This practice involves a deeply felt sentiment — ‘rest in peace.’ In the daily life of the soldier the sounding of taps at 11 o’clock pm signifying ‘Lights out,’ announces the end of the day, implying that taps at his funeral signify the end of his day — the ‘Lights out’ of his life — his ‘rest in peace.’”
From then on, Taps was played unofficially at military funerals. But by 1891, it was officially adopted by the United States Army.
Because Taps is technically a signal — not a song — there are no official lyrics. However, many have attached their own lyrics to the signal. The most popular version is called Butterfield’s Lullaby, or the Day is Done.
Day is done
Gone the sun
From the lakes
From the hills
From the sky
All is well
God is nigh.