At military funerals in the United States, it has become customary to play “Taps”. Who wrote this piece of music? How long has it been in use?
Taps is a piece of music that is not only played at military funerals, but is also played each night on military bases to signal “lights out”. There are multiple stories related to the origin of Taps, as well as how the piece of music received its name.
There are some who believe the name “Taps” was derived from the old military term “tattoo”. A military tattoo was a tune that was played each evening to inform the troops that it was time to extinguish the lights. However, there was also a practice of striking a drum three times after the playing of the tattoo. These drum beats became known as “The Drum Taps” and was later shortened to simply “Taps”. This is most likely how the legendary tune received its name.
The tune itself was arranged by Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield of the Union Army, during the Civil War. He adapted it from an older “lights out” tattoo that had been used by the French Army. By the end of the war, “Taps” was being used by both the Union and Confederate forces to signal “lights out”.
There are at least two well-known stories related to how “Taps” came to be used at military funerals. One story suggests that a man named Robert Ellicombe, an officer in the Union Army, asked that “Taps” be played at his son’s funeral (who was in the Confederate Army). This story claims that Ellicombe had found the tune written on a piece of paper in the son’s pocket. However, this story has been proven to be apocrypha (a story of doubtful origin) because there is no record of a Robert Ellicombe serving in the Union Army.
The more readily accepted story is that of Captain John C. Tidball. A corporal serving under Captain Tidball had died, and Captain Tidball wished to bury the young man with full military honors. This would have included a three-gun salute. However, for military reasons, he was not allowed to fire the guns. As a substitute, it struck him as appropriate to have “Taps” played. The song seemed appropriate to those in attendance, and it quickly caught on.
In 1891, “Taps” became a standard feature at all U.S. military funeral services. It is also still played on military bases to signal the end of each day. While “Taps” is usually played instrumentally, with either a bugle or trumpet, there are also lyrics which accompany the melody. The lyrics of the first verse are as follows:
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky,
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.