Sounding a solemn note: Taps turns 150

Publication Date

Daniel Butterfield, Union Class of 1849 (courtesy of Union College Special Collections)

It may be the most recognizable 24 notes in music. Played at funerals, and wreath-laying and memorial services, the military bugle call known simply as Taps was first sounded in July 1862.

Yet the tale of who gave life to Taps and how it became embedded in American culture has not always been harmonious. Over the years, various stories have circulated about the bugle call’s origins. These urban myths persist, particularly around holidays such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day.

There’s little doubt the credit for Taps rests largely with Daniel Butterfield, a member of Union’s Class of 1849. While serving as a general during the Civil War, Butterfield didn’t like the traditional bugle call that marked the day’s end. So with the help of his brigade’s bugler, Butterfield tweaked another call no longer in use. The eloquent and haunting sound quickly spread to other units and became the new standard.

Butterfield was not one to toot his own horn, however, so it would be decades before his role was revealed. And this happened only by chance after a magazine article about bugle calls a few years before Butterfield’s death failed to acknowledge his contribution.

Butterfield will take a bow when a series of events is held to mark the 150th anniversary of Taps.

On Saturday, May 19 (Armed Forces Day), Union will host a brass band concert at 9 p.m. in Memorial Chapel. The 15-piece band, comprised of faculty, students and members of the local Signature Brass Quintet, will be led by Jari Villanueva, a retired Air Force veteran and author of Twenty-Four Notes That Tap Deep Emotions: The History of America’s Most Famous Bugle Call. Villanueva, president of Taps 150, will also give a talk on Butterfield at 11:30 a.m. Friday, May 18, in College Park Hall as part of ReUnion festivities.

Between those two campus events, Villanueva will board a plane and join 200 buglers from throughout the country to perform Taps at Arlington National Cemetery Saturday morning. And next month, Villanueva and others will gather at the site in Virginia where Butterfield and his bugler conceived Taps.

Learn more about Taps.

Precisely how did General Butterfield come to be associated with Taps? In August 1898, Century Magazine published an article, “The Trumpet in Camp and Battle.” The author made note of Taps, but admitted he wasn’t sure who was responsible for the now-accepted call to close a soldier’s day.

A former bugler during the war, Oliver Willcox Norton, saw the article and wrote to the magazine. Norton described Butterfield, a general for the Union Army who led his brigade in the Peninsular Campaign at Harrison’s Landing in Virginia.

Unhappy with Extinguish Lights, the traditional French call sounded at the end of the day, Butterfield tapped Norton, the brigade’s bugler, to help him play something different.

Butterfield summoned Norton to his tent, and the two men practiced a call, which was adapted from an older one familiar to Butterfield, Tattoo. Butterfield directed Norton to sound the new call that July night in 1862.

“The music was beautiful on that still summer night, and was heard far beyond the limits of our brigade,” Norton recalled. “The next day I was visited by several buglers from neighboring brigades, asking for copies of the music, which I gladly furnished.”

The magazine tracked down Butterfield in Cold Spring, N.Y. He confirmed the gist of Norton’s account.

The old call “did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be,” Butterfield said.

The idea of creating a distinct bugle call for his brigade had also worked when Butterfield was a colonel for the 12th Regiment of the New York State Militia.

“The men rather liked their call, and began to sing my name to it,” he wrote. “The men would sing Dan, Dan, Dan, But-ter-field, But-ter-field to the notes when the call came.”

Although Taps was in heavy rotation since its debut in 1862, the U.S. Army continued to refer to the call as Extinguish Lights in its manuals until 1891, when it was officially changed to Taps. And why Taps? It refers to the three distinct drum taps at four-count intervals at the end of the call.

Despite the magazine story, Butterfield continued to suffer slights, intentional or not. Stories shared about the origin of Taps failed to mention him. The most popular telling involved a young man from the North who was killed fighting for the South during the Civil War. When his father, a captain in the Union Army, came across his son’s body on the battlefield, he found the notes to Taps in the boy’s pocket. A general ordered the call be played at the funeral.

And two monuments to Butterfield contain no reference to Taps. One is Butterfield’s ornate tomb at West Point. Butterfield never attended the academy but was buried there because of his heroics during the Civil War. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his military service. The other monument is a bronze statute of Butterfield that stands in Sakura Park in Manhattan, near Grant’s Tomb.

At Union, Butterfield was a member of the Sigma Phi fraternity. He stayed connected with the College for the remainder of his life, establishing a course of 30 lectures given by many prominent figures of the day, including Andrew Carnegie, General P.S. Michie and Butterfield’s classmate, Frederick Seward (son of William Henry Seward). Butterfield Hall opened to the Chemistry Department in 1918.

Butterfield was 69 when he died in 1901. Taps was sounded at his funeral.

Said Villanueva, who is organizing the anniversary tributes to Taps and, as a 23-year member of the United States Air Force Band, has performed the call more than 5,000 times at Arlington:

“If it weren’t for Daniel Butterfield, we could all still be playing the call we borrowed from the French.”