As Veteran’s Day unfolds across America, nearly everyone within reach of a television or radio will likely listen to the hauntingly beautiful melody named “Taps”. I would argue this melody is the most recognizable tune in our country as it denotes patriotism on the grandest of scales. I thought it appropriate on Veteran’s Day to remind folks about the origins of this iconic tune.
In 1862, during the Civil War, Union general Daniel Butterfield and his brigade were camped near Harrison’s Landing in Virginia having just finished a long battle with confederate forces near Richmond. The General was not particularly fond of the bugle call in current use signaling the time to retire for the night. He thought the current tune was abrupt and needed improvement. The General decided to rework the current call and wrote the 24 notes that we recognize today as Taps. He instructed his bugler to play the new melody that night, and noted the popularity of the call among his troops. It wasn’t long before buglers from other units began playing this call. Interestingly, this melody quickly became popular with the Confederate forces as well.
The tradition of playing Taps at military funerals is thought to have begun when Captain John Tidball, an artillery commander, ordered the melody played at the funeral for one of his cannoneers, who was killed in action. The Captain was also convinced that playing Taps was safer than the traditional 3 rifle volley that was the current practice at military funerals. He believed the rifle fire could be mistaken for hostile action, a likely event as opposing forces often were camped within close proximity during the war.
How did we get from a melody named “Extinguish Lights” to the moniker Taps? Again we call upon reliable historians who suggest Taps likely came from the traditional three drum beats, called “Drum Taps” which always accompanied the lights out call. The moniker “Extinguish Lights” remained in military manuals until sometime in 1891. From this day forward, Taps has been formally recognized as a part of military funeral services, flag ceremonies and lights out in the evening as the flag is retired for the night.
These 24 notes immediately stir the souls of all who have served in the military or have military veterans in their families. In fairness, the souls of most Americans, regardless of their vocation, are moved by the finality that Taps conveys. We instantly recognize that Taps signals lights out on all US military bases around the world and also is the final act of devotion reserved for our military members when their living light is extinguished by the inevitability of death. Memories, a flag and these twenty-four notes mark the end of a life well lived and a sacrifice gladly made in the name of freedom and devotion to the greatest country on earth.
May God bless America.