There is a piece of music we associate with Memorial Day, Veterans' Day and military funerals. It's a bugle call that brings tears to our eyes with its mournful notes and its call to the end of day. "Taps" has been around since the time of the Civil War, but have you ever wondered how it began?
Well, like many histories, there is more than one story behind the song. My research at West Point revealed that historians believe that Daniel Butterfield, a Union general in the Civil War, composed the original tune. According to an article in the American Legion magazine, Butterfield wrote these notes on the back of an envelope while recovering from wounds received at a battle near Richmond in 1862. His brigade bugler, Oliver Norton, would be the first person to play the haunting melody for ‘lights out’ that warm July evening.
Like I said, there is a second story, less plausible but still worthy of sharing. The timing is the same, July 1862, and the circumstances are similar, at a battle near Harrison's Landing, Virginia, but the characters are not the same. A Union army captain, Robert Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier dying in what was known as "no man's land" (battlefield) late that evening of 1862. Compassion overcame him. Crawling on his stomach, the captain reached the stricken soldier and pulled him back to the safety of the Union lines. To his surprise, when a lantern was brought, he discovered he had rescued a confederate boy, but to his horror when they rolled the soldier over the captain discovered that the boy was his own son. The captain's son had been studying music in the south when the war broke out and up to that time the father had lost track of his boy.
The following day the heartbroken father asked permission to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status. His request was only partially granted. Out of respect for Ellicombe it was decided to give him one musician instead of a military band. The captain chose a bugler. The father asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes found in the pocket of his son's coat. There, that summer afternoon of 1862, over the grave of a fallen loved one, the mournful, haunting notes of "Taps" echoed off the hills of the Virginia countryside for the first time. Since then the lonely bugler has brought home the sad message that freedom and liberty came with a price, a price that must be paid but a price that must never be forgotten. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
"Day is done; Gone the sun; from the lakes; from the hills, from the skies. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh."