Skip to main content

Last Call

July 2024
1min read

Taps is the Army’s most beautiful bugle call,” Bruce Catton wrote in This Hallowed Ground . “Played slowly and softly, it has a plaintive, tender, and touching character. It rolls down the curtain on the soldier’s day, and upon the soldier’s life.”

Most Americans would agree, for most have heard the sweet melancholy of the song’s notes at one time or another—too often at funerals. But few have known the circumstances under which it was composed, or when. Now, Colonel Eugene C. Jacobs of Vero Beach, Florida, has ferreted out the story and written it up for the July, 1978, issue of Military Medicine .

Taps was composed, Colonel Jacobs writes, by Colonel Daniel Butterfield while he recovered in a field hospital from wounds received in the Battle of Malvern Hill in July, 1862: “While Butterfield lay in his tent … he reviewed all of the bugle calls of his Brigade, many of which he had composed himself. He had been a great exponent of the bugle call, being able to blow all calls, and to teach his buglers just how each call should sound … [but he] was not satisfied with the final call of the day, variously known as Taps, Tattoo, and Lights Out.… He believed that Taps should bring comfort and peace to the tired and troubled men.”

So thinking, Butterfield grabbed a pencil and scribbled out the notes for a new Taps on the back of an envelope. He then called in the brigade bugler, Oliver W. Norton, asked him to sound the call, made quick revisions, then ordered Norton to play it that night for last call. It was the Fourth of July. “The music was beautiful on that still summer night,” Norton later recalled, “and was heard beyond the limits of the Butterfield Brigade as it echoed through the valleys. The next morning, buglers from other Brigades came to visit and to inquire about the new Taps and to learn how to sound it.”

Colonel Jacobs continues: “Taps followed Butterfield’s commands; to Fortress Monroe … to the Army of Northern Virginia, to the Army of Cumberland, to the Armies of the West … to Gettysburg, and finally on Sherman’s March to the Sea. … Between 1871 and 1874, it became mandatory for the Butterfield Taps to be used at all Army funerals. By 1900, all U.S. Military Services were using Taps and, during World War I, France adopted the American call.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.