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The Story of 'Taps'

Netlore Archive: History and folklore clash in this forwarded email tale about the origin of the touching and famous bugle call known as 'Taps.'

Description: Urban legend
Circulating since: 1999 / Earlier
Status: False

Email text contributed by Shannon C., Mar. 26, 1999:

Subject: TAPS


It all began in 1862 during the Civil War, when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison's Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land.

During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moan of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the field. Not knowing if it was a Union or Confederate soldier, the captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention.

Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment. When the captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead.

The captain lit a lantern. Suddenly, he caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier. It was his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, he enlisted in the Confederate Army.

The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status. His request was partially granted.

The captain had asked if he could have a group of Army band members play a funeral dirge for the son at the funeral. That request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate. Out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him only one musician.

The captain chose a bugler. He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of his dead son's uniform.

This wish was granted. This music was the haunting melody we now know as "Taps" that is used at all military funerals.

In case you are interested, these are the words to "TAPS":

Day is done,
Gone the sun,
From the lakes,
From the hills,
From the sky.
All is well.
Safely rest.
God is nigh.

Analysis by Peter Kohler: This tale is very touching, and being a tender testimony of father-to-son fealty under conditions of extreme duress, will remain so whether taken as fact or as fiction.

It is easy to understand why the genesis of "Taps," being the venerable piece of music that it is, has garnered such a story unto itself. Historically powerful and important events such as war are certain to result in plentiful tales told afterwards — many of them true as the day is long, others exaggerated, altered in significant details (sometimes quite innocently) and then ultimately fashioned through uncountable retellings into a highly polished, believable, and appealing "legend."

Such, at the very least, appears to be the case with this story. According to "24 Notes That Tap Deep Emotions" by Master Sergeant Jari A. Villanueva of the United States Air Force — probably the most authoritative military historian to turn to with questions about the history of "Taps" — this bugle call was sounded at a burial for the first time in July of 1862, during the Peninsular Campaign of the Civil War of the United States. A soldier of Tidball's Battery — A of the 2nd Artillery — was buried while the battery was very near to their opponent, and thus the traditional firing of three volleys of gunshot was out of the question. Instead "Taps" was sounded as a substitute honorary. The bugle call — then known as "Extinguish Lights," or "Lights Out," was used widely during the Civil War, and thus to hear the familiar refrain would not have aroused the suspicion of a nearby enemy. It seems likely that this is the seed event that germinated the story under examination.

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