Sounding ‘Taps’ for Memorial Day |

Sounding ‘Taps’ for Memorial Day

Special to the Daily
Keely Brown

It’s one of the most familiar melodies in the world ” a gentle, 24-note refrain that lingers, still and soft, in the memory long after we hear it. But, thanks to the romantic appeal of an urban legend, the history behind this simple tune is not so simple after all.

The story goes that, in 1862, Captain Robert Ellicombe, was camping with his unit in the Union Army near Harrison’s Landing in Virginia. Just across from the encampment was another battalion ” a regiment from the Confederate Army. As night fell, Captain Ellicombe heard a wounded soldier moaning out in the field that lay between the lines. Risking his life, he crawled to the unknown soldier and dragged him back into his own encampment.

By the time they arrived back, the soldier was dead. By lantern light, Captain Ellicombe bent down to look at the soldier’s face ” and saw to his horror that it was his own son, who was supposed to be at a music school in the South. Unbeknownst to his father, the boy had secretly enlisted in the Confederate Army.

Out of respect for a father’s grief, his superiors allowed Captain Ellicombe to give his son a full military burial even though he belonged to the enemy camp. Captain Ellicombe asked the company bugler to play a tune that he had found written on a piece of paper inside his son’s shirt pocket. That tune was “Taps.”

It’s a beautiful story. It’s also completely untrue. In fact, historians say that there is no evidence that a Captain Ellicombe even existed. No one knows who the author was of this sentimental urban legend, but we do know that its popularity in recent years is largely due to its wide circulation via e-mail.

The one true part is that “Taps” did, indeed, come out of the Civil War. And the site of its creation was, indeed, Harrison’s Landing.

The real “Taps” actually came from an earlier military tattoo sounded an hour before the last call of the day, in order to notify soldiers to stop the evening’s drinking and go back to their garrisons. This melody, published in a music manual by Winfield Scott in 1835, was known as the Scott Tattoo, and was used frequently during the Civil War.

How the Scott Tattoo evolved into “Taps” is another story unto itself.

For the true version, we have to thank Master Sgt. Jari Villanueva, a trumpeter for the U.S. Air Force Band at Bolling Air Force Base, and a historian regarded as the country’s foremost authority on “Taps.” In recent years, Master Sgt. Villanueva served as the curator for a “Taps Exhibition” at Arlington National Cemetery ” a fitting post for someone who has sounded “Taps” at the famed cemetery more than 1,600 times.

(And, by the way, it’s important to remember that “Taps” is never, never “played.” It is always “sounded” ” which somehow adds to its graceful dignity.)

The real story involves Gen. Daniel Butterfield of the Army of the Potomac who, one afternoon in July, asked his bugler, Pvt. Oliver Wilcox Norton, to revise the “lights out” tattoo ” the Scott Tattoo ” to make it more melodious. The new melody was sounded for the first time that night in the camp at Harrison’s Landing, Va., during the Peninsular Campaign of 1862.

In a letter written decades later, Norton wrote, “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.”

At the time, the melody became known as “Extinguish Lights” and was used as a “lights out” call. However, in July 1862, soon after its composition, it was sounded at the military funeral of a Union cannoneer who was killed in action across from Confederate lines. In order to keep the exact whereabouts of his battalion unknown, the company commander ordered that the traditional firing of three volleys be suppressed ” so the gentle “Taps” was sounded instead.

The rest, as they say, is history. A few decades later, in 1891, the U.S. Army Infantry Drill Regulations made mandatory the sounding of “Taps” during military funerals.

Hearing “Taps” sounded live is an unforgettable experience. My husband Tim spent some of his formative childhood years living on military bases, and he still nostalgically recalls hearing “Taps” being sounded on the base at Fort Sill, Okla., every evening right before dinner.

“There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call,” Norton wrote, years after the Civil War had ended. “Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air.”

For many people, the melody brings up a haunting image ” that of the bugler playing “Taps” for the funeral of President John F. Kennedy on a cold November day 44 years ago. The weather, in fact, played another part in the ongoing saga of “Taps” history.

Because of the cold, and, admittedly, the overwhelming importance of the occasion, U.S. Army Band Sgt. Keith Clark, an experienced bugler, cracked the sixth note on his b-flat bugle. You can hear it ” like a catch of breath in a keening wind ” almost as if it were meant to be there, a broken note to symbolize the feelings of devastation felt by the country and the world.

Amazingly and eerily, in the weeks immediately following Kennedy’s burial, other buglers at Arlington National Cemetery continued to miss that same note. Years later, Sgt. Clark admitted that he and his colleagues decided that this phenomenon must have been a psychological reaction to what had happened at the funeral.

The very bugle that Sgt. Clark played can be seen at the Visitor’s Center at Arlington National Cemetery ” where Sgt. Clark himself was buried in 2002.

If you love American history, it’s well worth a visit to Master Sgt. Villanueva’s website at, where you can read about the famed broken note, as well as other fascinating facts about the haunting melody we know as “Taps.”

This Memorial Day, wherever you are, you’ll probably hear “Taps” being sounded, either live or in a quick sound bite on TV. However you may hear it, do stop for a moment and listen ” and remember for whom it is being played.

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