Several years back I visited Berkeley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia. There on the grounds was a monument with a plaque about taps. You could also push a button and listen to the famous melody. But do you know the real story behind it? If you think you do, guess what, you have been hearing wrong!
As a genealogist, I’m fascinated by history, not just family trees of names and dates but also the stories that go behind people lives. How they lived. What they did and who did what. It is true that the birth of taps was played for the first time near Harrison’s Landing in July 1862. General Daniel Butterfield composed the haunting melody and was played by Butterfield’s bugler, Oliver W. Norton. But how it was found has been told wrong all these years.
You have probably heard the story of the Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe finding his dead son on the battle field along with musical notes written on a piece of paper. If you haven’t heard this, the story goes like this:
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 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.
The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son full military burial despite his enemy status. His request was only partially granted. The Captain has asked if he could have a groups 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.
To this date there has been no proof that a Captain Robert Ellicombe ever existed. The story gives no indication of what unit or state he served. In order to believe, one needs to produce muster, discharge or pension papers and background history of both the father and son, units, etc. also, where is the son’s grave?
So where did this far fetched story come from? It has been traced back to Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” story that Robert Ripley created for his short-lived TV program in 1949.
It’s a shame to see this story still to this day being told wrong even by well-meaning people who believe it to be true. It has been printed in papers, newspapers, and even sadder, on some military websites as the true version of how the bugle call of Taps came into existence.
Of all the military bugle calls, none is so easily recognized as this one. It’s the song that gives us that lump in our throats and usually tears in our eyes. It is my hope that people who are interested in history, like I am, can help stop this story and spread the real story behind Taps.
The history of its origin is interesting. The British Army, a similar type call known as Last Post has been sounded over soldier’s graves since the 1885, but the use of Taps is unique to the United States military, since the call is sounded at funerals, wreath-laying and memorial services.
Taps began as a revision to the signal for Extinguish Lights (Lights Out) at the end of the day. Up until the Civil War, the infantry call for Extinguish Lights was the one set down in Silas Casey’s (1801-1882) Tactics, which had been borrowed from the French. Union General Daniel Butterfield adapted the music for Taps for his brigade, (Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac) in July 1862.
General Butterfield was not pleased with the call for Extinguish Lights, feeling that the call was too formal to signal the days end, and with the help of the brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton (1839-1920), wrote Taps to honor his men while in camp at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, following the Seven Days battle.
The real story goes like this as told by Oliver W. Norton.
One day, soon after the seven days battles on the Peninsula, when the Army of the Potomac was lying in camp at Harrison’s Landing, General Daniel Butterfield, then commanding our Brigade, sent for me, and 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. I have been told that the 11th and 12th Corps carried it to the Western Armies, when they went to Chattanooga in the fall of 1863, and rapidly made its way through those armies. I did not presume to question General Butterfield at the time, but from the manner in which the call was given to me, I have no doubt he composed it in his tent at Harrison’s Landing.
Much is known about Daniel Adams Butterfield and Oliver Willcox Norton. They both survived the Civil War and went on to become prosperous and respected businessmen and citizens. They both wrote about their Civil War experiences and of the creation of Taps in July 1862.
Both the Union and Confederate armies immediately took up the tune. Now the official bugle call of the, United States Army.