“Taps” is a 24-note bugle call that is performed predominantly at military funerals, flag ceremonies, and dusk by the “United States Armed Forces.” The official version of the Armed Forces is performed using a single trumpet or bugle, although other prominent versions of this tune are also utilized under various contexts. The “U.S. Marine Corps” have their own version of the tune played using two bugles and a separate “band” version.
Origin & History
The title “Taps” is an alternate version of “taptoo,” which is now obsolete. The word is derived from the Dutch word “taptoe.” “Taptoe” was a command (Tap toe) for shutting the “tap” of a keg. Daniel Adams Butterfield, a Union General during the American Civil War, is the creator of the revised present-day version. He formally replaced the previous “lights out” version used by the U.S. Army, with a more informal rendition of the “tattoo.” Oliver Wilcox Norton, his bugler, was the first person to sound it. It gained fame within months as both the Confederate and Union forces started using it. In 1874, the United States Army officially recognized it.
John C. Tidball, a Union Captain, was the first person to start the custom of playing the tune at military funerals (he ordered it to be played at the funeral of a cannoneer). He adopted this custom to stop the “three rifle volleys,” which were traditionally fired over the deceased’s grave and ran the risk of alerting the enemy. In 1891, the regulations of the U.S. infantry made “Taps” mandatory at all military funerals.
“Taps” is undoubtedly one of the most recognized bugle calls, one that renders massive emotional strength. It’s not just another smooth, musical melody, but also a sign of tribute and respect and to those known, and unknown. Before Tidball incorporated it into military funerals, it was predominantly used as a signal referring to the end of a day’s work. There was almost no overtone or connotation of loss or death.
The note offers a palpable sense of pensive desolation and is also speculated to be an adaptation of “tattoo,” a French bugle call. The French army used it to notify soldiers to stop their evening merriment and head back to their garrisons. It was also the penultimate call, as the final bugle call followed after an hour, signaling the end of the day. Taps resemble the last five measures of “tattoo.”
“Taps” is also extensively utilized at “Girl Guide,” “Girl Scout,” and “Boy Scout” camps and meetings. It is also called “Butterfield's Lullaby.” The duration of the call is approximately 59 seconds, although it may vary in the case of other versions.
Other Prominent Versions
Silver Taps and Echo Taps
They are traditions followed at U.S. military schools, who play “Taps” during such events. Eminent universities like Virginia Tech, The Citadel, New Mexico Military Institute, Texas A&M University, Norwich University, etc. The tradition takes place when a member or a former cadet of the university’s or school's corps is killed in action. “Echo Taps” mainly utilize the version of “Taps” for two bugles and are played antiphonally to portray the cadet’s college and branch of service, respectively. “Silver Taps” may use the same arrangement or may also opt for another version comprising additional instruments.
The ceremonies are strictly held at 9:45 p.m. (2145) as “Corps of Cadets” silently stand on the Upper Parade Ground for 15 minutes until 10:00 p.m. (2200). It starts off with “tattoo,” followed by “Echo Taps” after which the unit commanders deliver the orders of “attention” and “present arms.” The regimental bugler is positioned near the flagpole and doles out “Taps.” The echoing bugler faces the parade ground and follows every note. As “Taps” is completed, the cadets are dismissed in silence.
The “Echo Taps” is played at 10:30 p.m. (2230) as both cadets and students attending the ceremony gather around. The buglers stand in front of the megaphone at both the south and north end. The south end performs the first 3 notes of “Silver Taps,” which is echoed by the north end. The next three notes duly follow and are similarly echoed until the end of the ceremony.
The tributes are held on the first Tuesday of the following month from the date of a student’s death. In 1898, the first ceremony of “Silver Taps” was held in honor of Lawrence Sullivan Ross, a former president of the college and governor of Texas.
New Mexico Military Institute
The “Silver Taps” or “Echo Taps” played here is held on a designated night as decided by the alumni and utilizes three trumpets. The ceremony takes place at the Hagerman Barracks each year to honor all alumni who were either killed in action or passed away due to natural causes. It also includes a custom where candles are lit and extinguished to commemorate all alumni of the year. Three buglers are posted at the north, west, and south of the barracks respectively while the candles are placed at the east side. As the early “Taps” concludes, there is complete silence for the rest of the night.
Various Guiding, Scouting and Girl Scouts groups across the world play the first verse of the bugle call at the end of a campfire or camp, which starts with “Day is Done.” Scouts also utilize “Taps” for signifying the end of the day’s activity and the subsequent expectation of silence in the camp. In case the closing takes place at daytime, Canadian “Girl Guides” traditionally play the third verse of “Taps.”
- The Austrian and German equivalent of the song is titled “Ich hatt' einen Kameraden.”
- The corresponding Dutch version is titled “Il Silenzio,” which strikingly utilizes Italian lyrics. Another Dutch counterpart is titled “Taptoe.”
- The Spanish equivalent is titled “Death is not the end.” (La muerte no es el final)
- The Commonwealth of Nations has a similar version of the song titled “Last Post.”
“Taps” only has a few notes. However, the inherent meaning of the tune is noteworthy. It isn't just a memorial bugle call. It's much more than that. It's about creating a connection with families who have lost. A languid, emotional goodbye to an individual who has represented and served the country with the utmost honor. It's about saying goodbye to the ones who gave everything, whose sacrifice enables the others to live and enjoy the beauty called life, and the haunting yet eloquent melody offers everyone the chance to reflect on such instances. A “courteous yet harrowing Grace."