According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia and several other sources, the tune used by the United States Armed Forces from 1835 until 1860 was a bugle call known as the “Scottish Tattoo.” “Taps” was arranged in its present form by the Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, an American Civil War general and Medal of Honor recipient, and a Utica, New York native. General Butterfield commanded the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division in the V Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac. While at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, in July 1862, General Butterfield chose to replace a previous French bugle call used to signal “lights out” with Taps. Butterfield’s bugler, Oliver W. Norton, of Erie, Pennsylvania, was the first to sound the new call., Taps was used by both Union and Confederate forces within months. The United States Army officially recognized the song in 1874.
“Taps” concludes many military funerals conducted with honors at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as hundreds of others around the United States. The tune is also sounded at many memorial services in Arlington’s Memorial Amphitheater and at grave sites throughout the cemetery.
Captain John C. Tidball, West Point, Class of 1848, started the custom of playing taps at a military funeral. It was in early July, 1862 at Harrison’s Landing, that a corporal of Tidball’s Battery A, 2nd Artillery, died. He was, Tidball recalled later, “a most excellent man.” Tidball desired to bury him with full military honors, but was refused, for military reasons, permission to fire three guns over his grave. Tidball later wrote, “The thought suggested itself to me to sound taps instead, which I did. The idea was taken up by others, until in a short time it was adopted by the entire army and is now looked upon as the most appropriate and touching part of a military funeral.” As Tidball proudly proclaimed, “Battery A has the honor of having introduced this custom into the service, and it is worthy of historical note.”
“Taps” also became a standard component of all U.S. military funerals in 1891.
“Taps” is sounded during each of the 2,500 military wreath ceremonies conducted at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every year, including the ones held on Memorial Day. The ceremonies are viewed by many people, including veterans, school groups, and foreign officials. “Taps” is also sounded nightly in military installations at non-deployed locations to indicate that it is “lights out”, and often by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts/ Girl Guides to mark the end of an evening event such as a campfire.
When “Taps” is sounded at a funeral, it is customary for serving members of the military or veterans to salute. The corresponding gesture for civilians is to place the right hand over the heart.
As we listen to the mournful sound of the bugle as it sounds “Taps,” it reminds us of the men and women who served their country to help keep us free.