I well remember the solemn, haunting melody of “Taps” at the conclusion of my father, Captain Artemus E. Ward’s graveside service at the Fort Rosecrans Military Cemetery in San Diego. He served in the United States Army during World War II in North Africa, France, and Germany. The American flag that was draped over his casket was reverently folded and presented to my mother “on behalf of a grateful nation.” It is now one of my most prized possessions. Even now, as I recall the sound of the bugle, I cannot resist tears.
The melody was composed in July, 1862 by Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, a Medal of Honor recipient, who commanded the 3rd Brigade of the First Division in the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. His bugler, Oliver Wilcox Norton, was the first to play it at the end of each day, a tradition still observed at American military installations throughout the world.
Captain John Francis Tidball then began the custom of playing “Taps” at military funerals. In July, 1862 at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, a corporal of Captain Tidball’s Battery A, 2nd U. S. Artillery died. He was, said Tidball, “a most excellent man.” Tidball wished to bury him with full military honors but was refused permission to fire three volleys over the grave, which would have betrayed his battery’s position to the Confederates.
“The thought suggested itself to me to sound ‘Taps’ instead, which I did. The idea was taken up by others, until in a short time it was adopted by the entire army.”
The forlorn sound was heard across the deadly field by the Confederate forces. Knowing instinctively its meaning, they too adopted it. It was played at the funeral of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in May, 1863.
Horace Lorenzo Trim later added five stanzas of words to accompany the music, three of which are included here:
“Day is done, gone the sun, From the lake, from the hills, 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.While the light, fades from sight, And the stars, gleaming rays, softly send, To thy hands, we our souls, Lord commend.”
There is an apocryphal story of a Union Army Captain named Robert Ellicombe, who also served with the Army of the Potomac near Harrison’s Landing. During the night he heard the moans of a soldier in the field between the Union and Confederate lines. Taking pity on the man, whether he be blue or gray, he crawled out on the field to bring him to safety and medical attention.
Upon completion of his mission he made three discoveries: He was a Confederate. He was now dead. It was his son. He had been studying music in the south when the war began and decided to enlist in the Confederate army.
When morning came Captain Ellicombe asked permission for his son to be given a burial with full military honors, despite the fact that he was a Confederate. Out of respect for him and the situation, his request was granted, but he was told that he would be given only one musician. He chose a bugler to play “Taps.”
Robert Alan Ward is a veteran and holds a B.S. in Christian Education from San Diego Christian College. He is retired and lives in Show Low with his wife, Gisela. You can read more of his work at www.absorbingtales4u.com