The History of Taps

27 May 2023 9:36 AM | Wendy S. Allen (Administrator)

This article originally appeared in the pages of the Gettysburg Times, May of 2023. It was penned by Therese Orr of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, in the hopes of sharing the work the Fellowship does.

Of all the military bugle calls, none is so easily recognized or more apt to evoke emotion than the call Taps. A melody both eloquent and haunting, 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 for the signal of Extinguish Lights (Lights Out) at the end of the day. Prior to the Civil War, the infantry call for Extinguish Lights was music borrowed from the French. The music for Taps was adapted by Union General Daniel Butterfield for his brigade in July 1862.
    As the story goes, General Butterfield was not pleased with the call for Extinguish Lights, feeling that the call was too formal to signal the day's end. With the help of the brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, Butterfield wrote Taps to honor his men while in camp at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, following the Seven Days battles in the summer of 1862. The General could not read or write music, but as was required of all regimental officers, he had learned the Army bugle calls.  It is believed that he took the existing Tattoo call and shortened and lengthened notes with the help of Norton until he liked it.  The new call, sounded that night in July 1862, soon spread to other units of the Union Army and was reportedly also used by the Confederates. Taps became an official bugle call after the war.
    Why the name Taps? The call of Tattoo was used in order to assemble soldiers for the last roll call of the day. The word tattoo in this usage is derived from the Dutch tap (faucet) and toe (to cut off). When it was time to cease drinking for the evening and return to the post, the provost or Officer of the Day, accompanied by a sergeant and drummer, would go through the town beating out the signal for all the troops to return to their billets. It is possible that the word Tattoo became Taps. Tattoo was also called Tap-toe and as is true with slang terms in the military, it was shortened to Taps.
    Since 2016 the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania has sponsored 100 Nights of Taps, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The evening begins at 5:30 with a free cemetery tour by a Licensed Battlefield Guide, each Guide providing a history of the cemetery and their own selection of soldiers to highlight. The tour ends in time for the 7:00 Taps program, which includes a brief historical vignette and the playing of Taps by a volunteer guest bugler. The buglers come from far and wide, this year including guest buglers from Belgium. We begin this year on May 29 with an extended program.
    We invite you to join us and our co-sponsor, the Gettysburg National Military Park, and our partners, Taps for Veterans and Gettysburg’s Licensed Battlefield Guides, for a beautiful end to the day as we honor those who gave the “last full measure of devotion” to our country.

Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania is a 501(c)3 Organization
P. O. Box 3372, Gettysburg, PA  17325


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