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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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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (13+ / 0-)

    "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

    by DrLori on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 06:45:08 AM PDT

  •  Good diary and good history. (5+ / 0-)

    Funeral music and traditional military burial ceremonies are intense, the playing of Taps being the most soul-searing moments of any memorial service.  

    I was asked to do a diary on the Flowers of the Forest, which will be later this week. I am working on it.  It is traditional for Flowers of the Forest to be piped at the burial of soldiers in the UK, and is spreading around the world.  It is mentioned in the song, Green Fields of France, by Eric Bogle.  Also piped at the burial of my son in the National Cemetery.  The Last Post is the UK equivalent of Taps.

    The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. - Sun Tzu

    by Otteray Scribe on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 07:01:24 AM PDT

    •  It was worth writing the diary (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Otteray Scribe, Joy of Fishes

      just to hear that beautiful song.

      I'm familiar with Flowers of the Forest as well as Last Post and I look forward to reading your diary.   I know how difficult it is to hear these tunes as a rather callow citizen, callow in that I haven't yet lost a loved one to war, or buried my own child.  But how much harder it must be to carry the memory of hearing it at your own child's graveside!  You have all my respect and condolences for what must surely still be an open wound in your heart.

      "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

      by DrLori on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 07:19:16 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I will send you a KosMail when I post it. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        DrLori, Joy of Fishes

        This Sunday, my wife's name will be read at the Flowers of the Forest ceremony of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.  That is the solemn reading of the names of those who have joined the Flowers of the Forest in the past year.

        Last year, they read the name of my 17 y/o grandson.  

        The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. - Sun Tzu

        by Otteray Scribe on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 07:25:44 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Cancer has taken so much from you (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Otteray Scribe, Joy of Fishes

          and I am so sorry.  

          I understand better than you might expect.  The best I can say is that your grandson lived a full life and obviously did what he wanted, given the small span of time he had.  

          One of my rules for living is that the length of your life doesn't matter; it's the quality that counts.  I'm still in chemo and currently stable despite my Stage 4 status.  My cancer is aggressive and I know that, when it comes for me, it won't take long.  In many ways, I have the easy part of it--it's going to be brutal for my husband and my son (as an aside, strictly between you and me, my son is the bugler in the video.  I wasn't supposed to see him out of elementary school.  He's now a cadet at Virginia Military Institute.)

          I'll be looking for that KosMail. Blessings on you.  I'll be thinking about you this Sunday.

          "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

          by DrLori on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 07:48:57 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Eric Bogle is one of my favorites. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Otteray Scribe, Joy of Fishes

      For good reason, it would seem.

      "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.." - John F. Kennedy: Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961. We are the 99%.

      by IndieGuy on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 02:37:18 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  This is too good a diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DrLori, dougymi, Joy of Fishes

    not to get more eyeballs.  I linked to it in this morning's edition of J-Town.  That should drive a little traffic over here.

    The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. - Sun Tzu

    by Otteray Scribe on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 07:15:07 AM PDT

  •  Nice diary! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DrLori, dougymi, Otteray Scribe

    I teach at Union College in Schenectady, NY, where Daniel Butterfield went to school [he grew up down the road in Utica] and we had Jari Villanueva come up back in May and observe TAPS 150 by leading a brass band made up of local players in a bunch of Jari's arrangements and transcriptions. We had a blast! So much goodwill was generated by the concert that we're thinking of keeping the group together. As soon as I get my tech together, I will post some videos on Youtube.

    One of our concert organizers, trumpeter Steve Weisse, actually went down to the Berkely Plantation event and sat in with Jari's band.

    Steve and I are also both members of BAA. He's had lots of opportunity to play at local veterans' burials, but my schedule keeps me very busy and the only one I've played recently was my father's last week. It was a huge honor for me...

    •  Jari is a great guy, a very generous fellow, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Otteray Scribe

      and I think doing the Taps 150 has been a dream of his.  I'm glad you got to know him.  Your friend Steve would have been playing with my son Jack, who's also in the Federal City Brass band--b-flat cornet.  Is Steve in this photo?  (The guy in the front row with the red sash is the great and irrepressible George Rabbai who, if you don't know him, you should!)

      It's great that you're a member of BAA, and I'm sorry that your first funeral was your own dad's.  It's a great honor, though, to be able to play it, and I'm sure you did him proud.

      "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

      by DrLori on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 09:52:48 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Otteray Scribe

        I think Steve is the cornetist sitting immediately to George's right.

        Great pictures, although I'm told weather was wicked hot!

        •  Oh, it was! Brutal. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Otteray Scribe

          And they scheduled in June to avoid the July heat.  Just imagine!

          My son Jack is the young fellow on the extreme right.  He's a campaigner (no tent required) and came home covered with mosquito bites.  He said it was either that or he'd suffocate under a blanket.

          "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

          by DrLori on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 10:31:10 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Pretty good (0+ / 0-)

    but not quite right. Butterfield couldn't read or write music. He took Scotts Tatoo from a manual written by Winfield Scott (the father of the U.S. Army) written in 1835 and together with his bugler Oliver Norton shortened some notes and lenghtened others to create what we know as Taps. It was essentially a reworked version of Scotts Tatoo which itself is speculated to be a variation of earlier calls.

    Side note. The Civil War is sometimes called Scotts War. Every single major officer from both sides with few exceptions, was trained by and served under Winfield Scott in the years leading up to the war.

    “I could have become a soldier if I had waited; I knew more about retreating than the man who invented retreating” - Mark Twain

  •  I was wondering where that Ellicombe rubbish came (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Otteray Scribe

    from, because I had never heard "Taps" attributed to anyone but Dan Butterfield (and I had also heard that he worked up several other trumpet calls, including one to identify himself/his men). The source was one of the heavyweight Civil War historians, but I don't at this remove remember which one.

    If it's
    Not your body,
    Then it's
    Not your choice
    And it's
    None of your damn business!

    by TheOtherMaven on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 06:02:17 PM PDT

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