Behind The Song: Daniel Butterfield & Horace Lorenzo Trim, “Taps”

At 19 years old, I stood motionless in the cemetery. Army uniform pressed to perfection, shoes freshly shined. Standing at attention, the silver trumpet felt cold in my hands, the weight of which had never felt heavier. The silence of the day’s ceremony was soon broken by three volleys of gunfire. As the gunshots echoed into the distance, I raised my horn and began to play. 

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For anyone who has experienced the sounding of “Taps” at a funeral, the emotion brought on by the song is hard to ignore. An experience such as mine, playing taps at a military funeral was something that arguably changed me for life. The resonance of a single bugle in the distance, sounding 24 simple notes, is the literal definition of the phrase, “less is more.”  Although we have, as Americans, come to associate this song with military funerals, where did it come from originally? 

“Taps” is considered by experts to be loosely based on two earlier bugle calls of similar meaning. The Dutch “Taptoe” was used at the end of the day to signal Dutch soldiers to close the beer taps and head back to camp. The “Scott Tattoo” was used in a similar fashion by American soldiers to signal lights out. During the Civil War in 1862, Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield was camped at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia. Exhausted from battle,  Butterfield began to experiment with new ideas for a lights-out bugle call. Eventually, Butterfield’s “Taps” became the norm not only for the Union Army, but the Confederate Army as well. 

It wasn’t long afterwards that “Taps” was first used in a military funeral for a young soldier killed in battle. Concerned that a rifle volley may trigger the enemy into thinking an attack was looming, a Union Captain ordered it played in place of the normal rifle volley. Soon thereafter, the tradition became the norm that we know today. 

The lyrics to “Taps” were added after the original composition by Butterfield. While little is known on how they were written, they are often attributed to Horace Lorenzo Trim, although his authorship is often debated as well. Nonetheless, the origin of the lyrics lost throughout the ages have become seemingly inconsequential when compared to the overall meaning of the song. 

As we approach Veterans Day every year, let us not forget the meaning behind “Taps.” What started as a simple bugle call has become a tradition at funerals for not only those who served in the military, but also First Responders. During a volatile time in our history, when the nation was divided and brothers fought against brothers, Butterfield had no idea that a modest bugle call would come to unite the nation in remembrance of all who served. 

Never forget.

Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

Fading light, dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar, drawing nigh, falls the night.

Thanks and praise, for our days,
‘Neath the sun, ‘neath the stars, neath the sky;
As we go, this we know, God is nigh.

Sun has set, shadows come,
Time has fled, Scouts must go to their beds
Always true to the promise that they made.

While the light fades from sight,
And the stars gleaming rays softly send,
To thy hands we our souls, Lord, commend.

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