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In 1862, just after the Seven Days' Battles around Richmond, Union Captain Robert Elicombe was encamped at Berkeley Plantation just below Richmond, with Confederate troops encamped nearby.  Late in the night, Elicombe heard the moans of a wounded soldier and, in the dark, ventured out into "no man's land" to retrieve the soldier and get him medical treatment.  He found the man, a mere boy, and brought him back to safety, only to find he had retrieved a Confederate soldier, who died as Elicombe carried him away from danger.  Lighting a lantern, Elicombe was heartbroken to recognize the Confederate soldier:  his own son!  The boy had been studying music in the South and enlisted in the Confederate army at the outbreak of the war.

Going through his son's pockets, Elicombe found a slip of paper with 24 notes written in his son's handwriting.  He found nothing else.  In the morning, he requested his son be given military honors despite his enemy status.  That request was turned down, as was his request for a band to play a funeral dirge.  His commander, however, a sympathetic major, did supply a bugler for the funeral.  Elicombe asked the bugler to play his son's only composition, the 24 notes he had found in his pocket.  Thus, Taps was born.

Some version of this story has probably hit your email inbox at some point.  A touching tale, a haunting tribute to the love of a father for his son, a love that birthed that most American of bugle calls.  

It's also bunk.  Almost all of it, sheer invention.   US Army Captain Robert Elicombe was never encamped at Berkeley, where he found his dead son near the Union lines; in fact, US Army Captain Robert Elicombe did not exist.  There was an encampment at Berkeley Plantation, but it was just that--an encampment, not a battlefield--in fact, it was an encampment protected and supplied by about 150 Union gunboats that were anchored in the James River at Berkeley, also called Harrison's Landing.  There could not have been any Confederate soldiers on the periphery, wounded or not, near enough to the Union lines to be heard.  

Follow me across the Great Orange Divide for the true story.

The Real Story

The truth is admittedly less poetic, but much more realistic.   Union General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, had been an official U.S. observer of the European armies during the Crimean War between 1855 and 1856.  A career officer, he brought back with him a great many military customs and innovations that both the Russians and the French had developed, among them a number of bugle calls.

General Daniel Butterfield served as one of McClellan's brigade commanders.  Also a career Army man, Butterfield disliked the official McClellan-imported call "Extinguish Lights," the last call of the day.  He felt it was too formal, too long, and too "French" to signal an appropriate call to rest for his troops.  (I've looked everywhere on the web for an audio clip of the original call, but no matter--you'll hear a version of it in the video below.)  

Butterfield was not a musician, but he was an accomplished bugler in his own right. During the Civil War, all officers were expected to be able to sound bugle calls, in case something happened to their buglers.  As the war progressed, buglers became increasingly targeted since, in the noise of battle, their calls were the only means of communication and command to the troops.  In 1862, rather early on in the war, the targeting of buglers had not begun.

While encamped at Berkeley Plantation, in the July lull after the Seven Days' Battles around Richmond, Butterfield had leisure to consider the hated call.  He took the last five notes of "Extinguish Lights" as the basis for a new call.  Although he could sound bugle calls, Butterfield was not a musician and didn't read music, so he called his battalion bugler, Oliver Wilcox Norton, to help him.

Years later, Butterfield recalled the meeting as follows:

The call of Taps did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be, and I called in some one who could write music, and practiced a change in the call of Taps until I had it suit my ear, and then, as Norton writes, got it to my taste ....
Norton wrote his recollection in response to an 1898 article in Century Magazine that mistakenly credited the author of the Army Field Manual for the composition of Taps:  
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.
Jari Villanueva is considered the premier expert on Taps, and his website, tapsbugler.com offers a full history of Taps.  The U.S. Army Band's website also includes an accounting of the origin of Taps.

"The music was beautiful on that still summer night"

Over the weekend of June 22-24, 2012, musicians, Members of the American Legion and Union reenactors from the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, as well as members of Bugles Across America and the Federal City Brass Band gathered on the same ground at Berkeley Plantation to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Taps.

The Commemoration weekend was the brainchild of Jari Villanueva and undertaken by Taps150.org.  The plantation house and gardens at Berkeley were open for tours, and the weekend featured a living history  by the 83rd Pennsylvania, concerts and performances by the Federal City Brass Band, the Patriot Brass Ensemble Quintet and Bugles Across America, dress parades, interpretive programs on the origin of Taps and the principal historic figures, master classes on trumpet by George Rabbai and Jeff Stockham, a ceremony dedicating a memorial stone for Willie Johnston, a drummer with the 8th Vermont Infantry and, at 13, the youngest-ever recipient of the Medal of Honor.  

One of the highlights of the weekend was the reenactment of the first playing of Taps.  

As O.W. Norton recollected, the following day buglers from neighboring battalions asked for the music, and battalion after battalion adopted the call.  As Taps spread across the Army, Confederate buglers heard it and adopted it, as well.  By the end of the Civil War, Taps was the evening call in both armies, and was also sounded at military funerals, starting in 1863.

Taps is considered by many to be one of the most quintessentially American tunes ever composed.  All of us have heard the call sounded, whether by boy scouts or in the rendering of  military honors, and the call rarely fails to move us.  In 2000, Congress ensured all veterans the right to have at least two uniformed military service people at their funerals to fold their flags and present them to their next of kin, as well as the right to have Taps played by a bugler or, if a bugler is not available, by an offical recording.  Bugles Across America was founded to ensure that, at the funeral of every veteran, a real bugler is present to render honors.  Bugles Across America operates in all fifty states.  If you forsee the need for a bugler, you may want to bookmark their website, and if you still have your embouchure, you could volunteer.

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