History of “Taps”
The creation of our country’s most revered bugle call has for many years been credited to General Daniel Butterfield, commander of the Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War.
It was believed that the general wrote the call in July 1862 while his brigade was camped in Confederate territory at Harrison’s Landing on the banks of the James River in Virginia following the Seven Days Battle. Brigade bugler, Oliver W. Norton, first sounded the call there.
Years later, in 1898, Norton wrote about the creation and première of “Taps.” He claimed that General Butterfield showed him some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope and asked him to play them. General Butterfield made some revisions to the music and instructed Norton to sound this call in place of “Lights Out” that evening.
General Butterfield wrote in response to this that Norton’s recollection was generally correct. He stated that he was knowledgeable of military bugle calls and could sound them himself. “Lights Out” did not seem as smooth, melodious, and musical as it should be so he called upon some one who could write music (he claimed to be unable to read or write music) to make the changes in the call.
Recently scholars have discovered that General Butterfield did not compose this new call but revised an earlier call with which he was familiar. The origin of the call which the General gave to Norton is found in an early version of “Tattoo” and was published in at least three drill and tactics manuals: the Winfield Scott manual of 1835, the Samuel Cooper manual of 1836, and the William Gilham manual of 1861.
The last five measures of the version of “Tattoo” very closely resemble the current day “Taps.” Undoubtedly, General Butterfield was remembering this earlier call he had learned from his previous training as a regimental commander. He made revisions to it to suit him, and had Norton sound the call. The new call spread quickly to other units in both the Union and Confederate armies. It began to be used for funeral ceremonies almost immediately but it was not until 1891 that U.S. Army drill regulations made it mandatory for funerals.