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Informer: Taps written in 1862 by Union general, bugler

Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 2:56 PM

By Andrew Perzo / American Press

When did the military start using taps for funerals? Who wrote the melody, and are there words to it?

Both the tune and its use at funerals date from the Civil War.

Brig. Gen. Daniel A. Butterfield, an officer with the Army of the Potomac, in July 1862 decided to revise the “light’s out” bugle call, a generic and formal French melody — reportedly much liked by Napoleon — that dated from the early years of the 19th century.

Butterfield whistled some notes based on an old, disused call to Pvt. Oliver Wilcox Norton, the brigade bugler, and asked him to work the melody into a new tune.

“This was done, not quite to his satisfaction at first, but after repeated trials, changing the time of some of the notes, which were scribbled on the back of an envelope, the call was finally arranged to suit the general,” Norton wrote years later.

“He then ordered that it should be substituted in his brigade for the regulation ‘Taps’ (extinguish lights) which was printed in the Tactics and used by the whole army. This was done for the first time that night.”

On the following day, Norton writes, buglers from other brigades came to inquire about the call, jotted down the 24 notes and took them to use in their camps. It was adopted Army-wide after other generals heard the tune.

The earliest use of taps at a funeral dates from shortly after the tune’s composition. Capt. John Tidball, commander of an artillery battery in Virginia, ordered that taps be played during the burial of a cannoneer because he feared that the customary rifle volleys would provoke an enemy attack.

The tune, also known as “Butterfield’s Lullaby,” became the Army’s official bugle call after the war and was named “taps” in 1874. The song has no officials lyrics, but according to Norton, soldiers put words to the tune from the beginning.

“In accordance with the custom of attaching words to such calls as had a significance to which words were adapted,” he writes, “the men soon began to sing to this call, ‘Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep. You may now go to sleep, go to sleep.’ This was the last regular call of the day or night in camp.”

Some popular verses for taps, according to historian Jari Villanueva, himself a former bugler at Arlington National Cemetery:


Day is done, gone the sun,

From the lake, from the hill,

From the sky.

All is well, safely rest,

God is nigh.

Thanks and praise, For our days,

’Neath the sun, ’Neath the stars,

’Neath the sky,

As we go, This we know,

God is nigh.

Fades the light; And afar

Goeth day, And the stars

Shineth bright,

Fare thee well; Day has gone,

Night is on.

Go to sleep, peaceful sleep,

May the soldier or sailor,

God keep.

On the land or the deep,

Safe in sleep.

Love, good night, Must thou go,

When the day, And the night

Need thee so?

All is well. Speedeth all

To their rest

• • •

The Informer answers questions from readers each Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. It is researched and written by Andrew Perzo, an American Press staff writer. To ask a question, call 494-4098, press 5 and leave voice mail, or email informer@americanpress.com

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