The Story of the Bugle Call Taps

A Union General and a Brigade Bugler Composed It In a Civil War Camp

Pencil sketch of Civil War bugler by artist Alfred Waud
Library of Congress

The bugle call "Taps," the familiar mournful notes played at military funerals, was composed and first played during the Civil War, in the summer of 1862.

A Union commander, Gen. Daniel Butterfield, with the help of a brigade bugler he had summoned to his tent, devised it to replace the bugle call the U.S. Army had been using to signal the end of the day.

The bugler, Private Oliver Willcox Norton of the 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment, used the call for the first time that night. It was soon adopted by other buglers and became very popular with the troops.

"Taps" eventually spread throughout U.S. Army during the Civil War. It was even overheard by Confederate troops listening beyond the Union lines and adopted by their buglers.

Over time it became associated with military funerals, and it is played to this day as part of the military honors at the funerals of American veterans.

General Daniel Butterfield, the Composer of "Taps"

The man most responsible for the 24 notes we know as "Taps" was General Daniel Butterfield, a businessman from New York State whose father had been a founder of American Express. Butterfield took a great interest in military life when he formed a militia company in upstate New York in the 1850s.

At the outbreak of the Civil War Butterfield reported to Washington, D.C., to offer his services to the government, and was appointed an officer. Butterfield seemed to possess a busy mind, and he began to apply his penchant for organization to military life.

In 1862 Butterfield wrote, without anyone asking for it, a manual on camp and outpost duty for the infantry. According to a biography of Butterfield published by a family member in 1904, he submitted his manuscript to his division commander, who passed it along to General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac.

McClellan, whose obsession with organization was legendary, was impressed with Butterfield's manual. On April 23, 1862 McClellan ordered that Butterfield's "suggestions be adopted for governance of the army." It was eventually published and sold to the public.

"Taps" Was Written During 1862's Peninsula Campaign

In the summer of 1862 the Union's Army of the Potomac was engaged in the Peninsula Campaign, an attempt by General McClellan to invade Virginia by its eastern rivers and capture the Confederate capital at Richmond. Butterfield's brigade was engaged in combat during the drive toward Richmond, and Butterfield was wounded in the furious fighting at the Battle of Gaines' Mill.

By July 1862 the Union advance had stalled, and Butterfield's brigade was encamped at Harrison's Landing, Virginia. At that time, the army buglers would sound a bugle call every night to give the signal for soldiers to go to the tents and go to sleep.

Since 1835, the call used by the U.S. Army was known as "Scott's Tattoo," named for General Winfield Scott. The call was based on a older French bugle call, and Butterfield disliked it as being too formal.

As Butterfield could not read music, he needed help in devising a replacement, so he summoned a brigade bugler to his tent one day.

The Bugler Wrote About the Incident

The bugler Butterfield enlisted was a young private in the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Oliver Willcox Norton, who had been a schoolteacher in civilian life. Years later, in 1898, after the Century Magazine had written a story about bugle calls, Norton wrote to the magazine and told the story of his meeting with the general.

"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 all through the Army of the Potomac.
"I have been told that it was carried to the Western Armies by the 11th and 12th Corps when they went to Chattanooga in the fall of 1863, and rapidly made its way through those armies."

Editors at the Century Magazine contacted General Butterfield, who had, by then, retired from a business career at American Express. Butterfield confirmed Norton's version of the story, though he pointed out that he had been unable to read music himself:

"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 to suit my ear, and then, as Norton writes, got it to my taste without being able to write music or knowing the technical name of any note, but, simply by ear, arranged it as Norton describes."

False Versions of the Origin of "Taps" Have Circulated

Over the years, several false versions of the story of "Taps" have made the rounds. In what seems to have been the most popular version, the musical notation was found written on some paper in the pocket of a dead Civil War soldier.

The story about General Butterfield and Private Norton has been accepted as the true version. And the U.S. Army took it seriously: when Butterfield died in 1901, an exception was made for him to be buried at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, though he had not attended the institution. A lone bugler played "Taps" at his funeral.

Tradition of "Taps" at Funerals

The playing of "Taps" at military funerals also began in the summer of 1862. According to a U.S. officers manual published in 1909, a funeral was to be held for a soldier from a Union artillery battery that was in a position fairly close to the enemy lines.

The commander thought it unwise to fire the traditional three rifle volleys at the funeral, and substituted the bugle call "Taps" instead. The notes seemed to fit the mournfulness of the funeral, and the use of the bugle call at funerals eventually became standard.

For decades, one particular flawed version of "Taps" has lived on in the memory of many Americans. When the funeral for President John F. Kennedy was held at Arlington National Cemetery in November 1963, Sergeant Keith Clark, a trumpet player in the U.S. Army Band, played "Taps." On the sixth note, Clark went off-key, partly because he was struggling in the cold weather. The writer William Manchester, in a book on Kennedy's death, noted that the flawed note was like a "swiftly stifled sob."

That particular rendition of "Taps" became part of American lore. The bugle Clark used that day is now on permanent display in Arlington National Cemetery's visitor center.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Story of the Bugle Call Taps." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, October 29). The Story of the Bugle Call Taps. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Story of the Bugle Call Taps." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).