The Once Mysterious and Often Misrepresented Origins of ‘Taps’
By Ken Zurski
In July of 1862, while a bedraggled group of Union soldiers rested in camp after an bloody and costly week of fighting near Richmond, Virginia known as the Seven Days Battle, Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield decided to make some changes to the military protocol commonly referred to as the bugler’s evening roll call.
Butterfield sent word to his company’s bugler, a man named Oliver Wilcox Norton, to meet him directly at the officer’s tent. According to Norton, Butterfield showed him some notes he had scribbled in pencil on the back of an envelope and asked him to sound it off on his bugle. “I did this several times,” Norton later described, “playing the music as written.” Butterfield adjusted it by ear and Norton played it for him again. “After getting it to his satisfaction he directed me to sound that call thereafter in place of the regulation call.”
Butterfield had modified the regulation call known as “Tattoo,” or at least the last 5 bars of it, into a 24-note call that was in the general’s own words, “smoother, more melodious and musical.”
“Tattoo,” later changed to “Scott’s Tattoo” for better distinction, refers to the former War of 1812 general Winfield Scott, who supposedly wrote the tune, although he likely only copied a centuries old medley.
Butterfield who was injured and recovering from battle sought to change it – or at least alter it slightly. For some reason, Butterfield thought Scott’s version was too formal sounding. So he came up with another shorter version that’s now more widely known as “Taps,” referring to a drum beat that often followed the call.
“I think no general order was issued from Army headquarters authorizing the substitution of this for the regulation call,” Norton asserts, “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.”
Norton gives Butterfield credit for composing “Taps,” but the general himself accepted no such distinction. He chose others to thank for helping him, specifically his wife who wrote down the notes while Butterfield whistled it to her. Being a commander in the Union Army meant that Butterfield knew how to play the bugle as a way of signaling his troops. But as Butterfield admits, he could not read or write music. “I practiced a change in the call until I had it suit my ear,” he claims.
Butterfield, a native New Yorker, rose quickly through the military ranks as colonel of the 12th Regiment of the New York State Militia to commander of the 3rd brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, and eventually Major General after the Peninsular Campaign which included the Seven Days Battle, a crucial turning point for the South. Later Butterfield would serve as a chief of staff for “Fighting Joe Hooker,” the commander of the Army of the Potomac, who fought incessantly with other Union generals and drank like a fish.
Butterfield and Hooker generally liked each other, which caused others to dislike Butterfield simply by association.
Butterfield however had his own flaws. He was snappish, hot-tempered and pushy. In the spring of 1863 , General Hooker suffered a crushing and embarrassing defeat to Lee’s army at Chancellorsville and was reprimanded and reassigned. (Butterfield would eventually fight in Gettysburg, be awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in the Battle of Gaines Mill, and serve on President Grant’s staff. But all that would come later).
In 1862, after a fierce and arduous week-long campaign, Butterfield and his division were recouping by the James River at Harrison’s Landing counting losses and awaiting word from another general, George B. McClellan, who was said to be retreating back to their position after his supply line was cut. That’s when Butterfield decided to give the standard “lights out” call a tuneful change.
Butterfield claims he had used the variation of the “Tattoo” notes before he presented them to Norton. While his troops were marching, he blew the call as an order to halt or lie down. “The men rather liked their call and would sing my name to it,” Butterfield humorously recounted. “’Dan, Dan, Dan Butterfield,’ [they sang] to the notes when the call came.” In times of trying circumstances, he added, they sometimes sang “Damn, Damn, Damn, Butterfield” instead.
Butterfield did not remember his bugler by name, but does not dispute that it was likely Norton to whom he showed the notes.
Of course the general’s recollections, as is Norton’s, comes in 1898, some 35 years after the fact, so memories of that day may be somewhat distorted. Butterfield was 67 at the time he finally revealed his side of the story.
Amazingly, both men’s responses came only after and an article appeared in Century magazine which basically posed this unanswered question: Where did Taps come from?
Had Norton not written a letter to the editor in response to the magazine article and the editor had not contacted Butterfield directly for his thoughts, the true history of “Taps” might still be unknown. Butterfield died in 1901, only two years after the article was written.
Until then, he took no credit or told anyone his connection to the song.
But the origin of “Taps” as a ceremonial song has even deeper and more romanticized roots. The earliest reference to its official use during a funeral comes up during the Peninsular Campaign. A soldier in Captain John Tidball’s Battery A, 2nd artillery was buried on the field while the battery was hiding in the woods. Tidball felt the customary firing of the three musket volley salute might alarm both sides into a resumption in fighting. So he had the bugler play “Taps,” or some variation of it, instead.
In another account, which began to circulate in the mid-20th century, a Union captain named Robert Ellicombe was with his men in a battle at Harrison’s Landing in Virginia when he heard the moans of a dying soldier nearby. Ellicombe bravely risked his own life to retrieve the soldier who was lying in a grassy area that separated the two sides. With musket balls whizzing over his head, Ellicombe crawled on his stomach and pulled the boy’s body out of danger. Sadly, though, by the time they reached safety, the soldier was dead. That’s when Ellicombe realized the boy was wearing a confederate uniform. When he looked closer he discovered something even more startling. The soldier was his own son.
As the story goes, Ellicombe’s son was studying music in the south and joined the confederate army without telling his father. When Ellicombe checked the s boy’s pocket he found a piece of paper with musical notes written on it. He asked the commanding officer if he could have a military band play the notes at his son’s funeral. His request was denied because the boy was a confederate. But as a concession, they told him, he could have one musician play the notes on one instrument. Ellicombe picked the bugle. The song, as you may have already guessed, was “Taps.”
The story of Ellicombe and his son, however, is not true. Historians have disputed it as simply a tall tale, a good yarn to tell around the campfire. In fact, Captain Ellicombe may not even exist. One good researcher traced the story back to Robert Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe or Not” who used the father and son version of “Taps” to great dramatic effect on his TV show in the late 1940’s. Whether Ripley knew it was pure fiction, didn’t matter. Most of Ripley’s features were subject to scrutiny anyway. But even the Ellicombe story prompted a biographer of Ripley’s to remark: “The denouement of this is a coincidence incredible even by Rip’s standards.”
Ripley apparently tried to pass the story off as the origination of “Taps,” rather than its funeral connotation, which might make more sense.
Either way, it’s fake.
Believe this, however. Norton and Butterfield were real; and together they solved the mystery of “Taps” origins over a century ago.
“Taps” is now the military’s most recognizable and mournful song. It is played to symbolize honor and respect during military funerals, wreath laying ceremonies, flag raisings and other memorial services. It’s often accompanied by a traditional gunfire salute. Butterfield had no idea at the time he made the adjustment to “Scott’s Tattoo ” that it would eventually be used for such a meaningful and solemn purpose.
After all, Scott’s version of “Tattoo,” wherever it came from, was a bit of a devilish thing.
“Tattoo”was also called “Tap-Toe” and derived from a Dutch term doe dan tap toe, or “to turn off the taps.” The song was a signal for men to put out all fires and all lights at night and most importantly stop drinking, hence the “tap” reference. In Scott’s earliest incarnation it was called many things like “Lights Out.” or “Extinguish The Lights.” Later the modified or softer version would be referred to as “Butterfield’s Lullaby.” After lyrics were added (but seldom used), it was often referred to as “Day is Done,” the first line.
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, 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.
Sun has set, shadows come,
Time has fled, Scouts must go to their beds
Always true to the promise that they made.
While the light fades from sight,
And the stars gleaming rays softly send,
To thy hands we our souls, Lord, commend.
During the Civil War, the men knew “Taps” as signal of order and didn’t mince words or actions when it sounded in camp.
They knew what to do, even if they didn’t much care for it.
So they appropriately called it, “Go to Sleep.”