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Army Taps: A U.S. Military Tradition

Updated on June 5, 2012

A somber melody is played at military funerals. As the lone bugle echoes out its melancholic yet elegant notes, everyone stands in silence and everyone honors the fallen. Whether in military funerals, flag ceremonies or just calling it a day; this song is well-known. Its tune is often encountered in military funerals. This bugle call is truly an iconic military tradition and everyone is moved by it.

Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield
Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield | Source

Taps Quick History

Taps was used to replace the older “lights out” bugle call borrowed from the French. In June 1862, Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield adopted a new light’s out call similar to the Scottish Tattoo. The bugler, Oliver Norton was the first one to play the call. In just a short period, both Union and Confederate Armies used the tune. By 1874, The United States Army officially recognized the call.

As a light’s out call, bugle call became synonymous with military funeral. This was due to Captain John Tidball. The story goes that one of his men died and was refused full military honors. Instead, he played the bugle call and marked a new military tradition. By 1891, playing the taps was included in the official military funeral ceremony.

Playing the Taps

Based on the U.S. Army Field Manual (1999), the taps is the last call of the day. It signals that closing of all unauthorized lights. Furthermore, the performance of “silver taps” or the “echo taps” is “not authorized”. With this style, one bugler plays the taps while another follows a few notes after. According to Army regulation 220-90, this was a waste of bugler asset and was not consistent with U.S. Army tradition.

Legend of the Taps

The bugle call has accumulated a number of legends concerning its origins. The most widely known is the story of a Union Army captain by the name of Robert Ellicombre. It is said that he ordered the performance of the Taps at his son’s funeral to honor him. His son, who died in the Peninsula Campaign, had a piece of paper on which was written the Taps. As touching as the story was, there was no record of any Robert Ellicombre serving as Captain in the Union Army.

Taps Lyrics

Day is Done

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

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

Then goodnight, peaceful night;
Till the light of the dawn shineth bright.
God is near, do not fear,
Friend, goodnight.

There is no official lyrics for Taps. This one was written by by Horace Lorenzo Trim.

So Why Call It Taps?

First, Taps is said to be from the three drum taps to signal lights out when there is no bugle for the last call of the day. Taps was a term used by service men to refer to lights out.

Second, sources say that it was derived from the Dutch word “taptoe”. Taptoe is the term used to order taverns to close down for the night. The term was adapted by the military to order light out or to signal the end of the day. In 1776, Thomas Simes Esq. printed the Military Guide for Young Officers in which the process to do final call (called tat-too) was written. In his manual the tat-too was played at 9 o’clock PM in summers and 8 o'clock PM in winter. In 1861, Colonel H.L. Scott defined tat-too and taptoe as terms having the same meaning – “drum-beat and a roll call at night”.

The two origins of the term are quite similar and in fact related.

Today, many countries have incorporated this bugle call into their own military ceremonies. Without a doubt taps is a military honor and military tradition that is known throughout the world. When the notes fly out, it’s hard to be moved by its simplicity and eloquence.

The 24 Notes of the Taps



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