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History of "Taps": The Military Memorial Melody

ReadMikeNow is a freelance writer who loves to research history, travel to interesting places, and discover unique stories.

Bugler playing "Taps"

Bugler playing "Taps"

The tune known as "Taps" was originally called "Scott Tattoo." The earlier version was used by the U.S. military from 1835 to 1860. Starting in 1862, Union Army General David Butterfield introduced "Taps."

Used to signal the end of a military day, "Taps" replaced a common bugle call from France known as "Lights Out."

Oliver Wilcox Norton was the first bugler to sound this tune. It became very popular and within a few months, this bugle call was used by both Confederate and Union forces. In 1874, "Taps" was recognized as an official bugle call by the U.S. Army.


There are various legends about the creation of "Taps." One of the most common involves an alleged Union Army Infantry officer named Captain Robert Elliscombe. It is said that Elliscombe is the first one to have this tune played at a funeral. It was for a soldier from the Confederate Army. Legend has it that this soldier was Elliscombe's son who died during the Peninsula Campaign. The powerful story says that Elliscombe discovered the music for song in his son's pocket. He had it performed to honor his son's memory. The problem with this legend is that there is no record of someone named Robert Elliscombe being an officer in the Army of the Potomac. There is no record of this individual being part of the Peninsula Campaign.

General Daniel Butterfield

General Daniel Butterfield

True History

The real story behind "Taps" is much less emotional. One aspect of the legend is true: it was written in 1862 after the Seven Days Battle. It was composed at Harrison's Landing in Virginia. It was not intended to be played at funerals. Union General Danial Butterfield felt the French bugle call being used known as "Extinguish Lights" sounded too formal. He then decided to use a tune that was seldom if ever used called "Scott's Tattoo."


This came from an old Dutch military word. Its meaning was used to state that it was time for beer taps to be turned off and for soldiers to return to their posts. It was common for this tune to be played approximately an hour before lights out. This provided soldiers with enough time to get ready for the end of the day.

Private Oliver Wilcox Norton

Private Oliver Wilcox Norton

Creation of "Taps"

After the Seven Days Battle, Private Oliver Wilcox Norton was summoned by General Daniel Butterfield. He showed Norton some notes on a staff that had been written on the back of an envelope in pencil. Butterfield asked Wilcox to sound them out on his bugle. He did this several times and Butterfield made some changes to the music. He then told Wilcox to call the creation "Taps."

Wilcox played the new call that night and it could be heard for quite a distance. Buglers from other neighboring brigades then visited Wilcox and asked for copies of the music. He provided it to all who asked for it. The playing of this tune soon became common with all units within the Army of the Potomac.

Captain John C. Tidball

Captain John C. Tidball


Captain John C. Tidball, member of the West Point class of 1848, began the tradition of playing "Taps" at military funerals in July 1862. A corporal under Tidball's command was killed in battle. Tidball felt the corporal was an excellent man and wanted to bury him with full military honors. He was denied permission to give the corporal a 21-gun salute over his grave. Tidball then decided to play "Taps" instead of doing the 21-gun salute. Those who saw this thought it was a great idea.

In a short time, it was common to play "Taps "at military funerals. Tidball was proud that his unit introduced this custom to the military. Playing this music became a standard part of U.S. military funerals starting in 1891.


When "Taps" is being played at a military funeral, it is expected that members of the military who are in uniform will salute. If they are not in uniform, the military person is required to place one hand over their heart until the tune is finished being played.

Common Uses

Every year, "Taps" is played during the military wreath ceremonies held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington D.C. These ceremonies involve many different types of people including foreign officials, veterans as well as school groups, and more. It is also played each night at U.S. military installations for units that are not deployed. This is done to indicate it is time for lights out. The tune is also used by the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and others as a way to signal an end to an evening.


© 2020 Readmikenow


Readmikenow (author) on November 30, 2020:

Peggy, thanks. It is a fascinating story.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 30, 2020:

I did not know all of this history behind the playing of Taps. Thanks!

Readmikenow (author) on November 30, 2020:

Fran, thanks. There is the legend and then there is the less glamorous truth. It's still fascinating.

Readmikenow (author) on November 30, 2020:

Liz, thanks. I never knew about it until I did some research on it.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on November 30, 2020:

Very interesting! I learned things I was not aware of by reading this. Thank you so much.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 30, 2020:

This is an interesting and historical article. I was fascinated by the background that you uncovered to this tradition.