The Story of Taps



Lt. Norton, December 1863. (From Army Letters, 1861–1865, by Lt. Oliver Willcox Norton, pub. by O.L. Deming, 1903.)

One day in July 1862, during the Civil War, Oliver Willcox Norton (1839–1920) was requested to sound on his bugle a new tune the Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield whistled to him. Butterfield felt that the call for "Lights Out" used to signal the day's end was too formal, and he wanted to honor his men while in camp at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, following the Seven Days battle. A few adjustments to the whistled tune, and the call now known as "Taps" was born. They used it that night, and it spread to other units of the Union Army. Soon after, it was used by the Confederates too. When the war ended "Taps" was made an official bugle call.

Oliver was 15 years old when his father, the Reverend Norton, moved to Ararat, Susquehanna County, early in 1855, from Morris County, New Jersey. Norton was the Presbyterian Reverend for Gibson and Ararat. The family lived at the Ararat parsonage from February 1855 until April 1858, when they moved to western New York. Oliver is listed as a student in the 1857 catalog of the Montrose Academy.

Gustav Kobbe, a music historian and critic, wrote an article, "The Trumpet in Camp and Battle" (published in Century Magazine in 1898), about the origin of bugle calls in the military:

In speaking of our trumpet calls I purposely omitted one with which it seemed most appropriate to close this article, for it is the call which closes the soldier's day . . . Lights Out. I have not been able to trace this call to any other service. If it seems probable, it was original with Major Seymour, he has given our army the most beautiful of all trumpet-calls.


Source: Wikimedia

Kobbe's reference for bugle calls was the 1874 Army drill manual on infantry tactics prepared by Major General Emory Upton, with music selections provided by Major (later General) Truman Seymour of the 5th U.S. Artillery. "Taps" was originally called "Extinguish Lights," as it replaced the "Lights Out" call. Later other manuals started to call it "Taps" because that is what most soldiers called it.

After reading Kobbe's article stating he couldn't place the origin of "Taps," Oliver W. Norton wrote this:

Chicago, August 8, 1898

I was much interested in reading the article by Mr. Gustav Kobbe, on the Trumpet and Bugle Calls, in the August Century. Mr. Kobbe says that he has been unable to trace the origin of the call now used for Taps, or the Go to Sleep, as it is generally called by the soldiers. As I am unable to give the origin of this call, I think the following statement may be of interest to Mr. Kobbe and your readers... During the early part of the Civil War I was bugler at the Headquarters of Butterfield's Brigade, Morell's Division, Fitz-John Porter's Corps, and Army of the Potomac. Up to July, 1862, the Infantry call for Taps was that set down in Casey's Tactics, which Mr. Kobbe says was borrowed from the French. 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 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. 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. I think General Butterfield is living at Cold Spring, New York. If you think the matter of sufficient interest, and care to write him on the subject, I have no doubt he will confirm my statement.


Sources:

History of Taps

Susquehanna County Historical Society (This website has a wealth of information about Susquehanna County's contributions to the Civil War.)


Listen to Taps


© Betsy Villanella 2012