Story and Origins of Famous Songs Taps

About the history, origins, and story behind the military song and bugle call Taps.


"TAPS," Daniel Butterfield--1862

"Taps"--melancholy yet serene and the best known of all bugle calls--is played to signal "lights out" at U.S. Army installations everywhere. A similar call is used at military funerals and memorial services.

It was a July day in 1862, and the Union Army of the Potomac was camped in enemy territory at Harrison's Landing on the banks of the James River in Virginia, when Gen. Daniel Butterfield, the commander of the army's brigades, was struck with the urge to create a new bugle call to replace "Extinguish Lights." He didn't like "Extinguish Lights" at all; it was too complicated, too dull, too strident. He asked his aide-de-camp and butler, Oliver Willcox Norton, to help him create a new bugle call. As he whistled some notes, Norton played them; then Butterfield revised them. They persisted at this laborious procedure until the bugle call that later became known as "Taps" was composed. Norton was the first to play it officially.

Norton wrote up this incident in Two Bugle Calls, but the bugle call itself did not appear in print until 1874, when Emory Upton included it in Infantry Tactics. Even then, it was known simply as "Extinguish Lights."

The word taps may come from the word tattoo, which was once the Dutch taptoe and meant "to turn the taps of a keg shut." A tattoo is a signal given shortly before "Taps" to indicate that it is time to go to quarters.

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