May 25 is Memorial Day, a day musically marked by one piece above all others: “Taps,” the bugle call played at military funerals and commemorations. Despite its timeless, folkloric quality, like all tunes, somebody wrote it; who that was, however, is a bit hazy.
The most common origin story comes by way of Gustav Kobbé, a famous New York-based music critic and author of the turn of the last century. (Kobbé’s best-known book, “The Complete Opera Book,” was published posthumously, after a seaplane crashed into a boat Kobbé was sailing in Long Island’s Great South Bay.) In 1898, Kobbé published an article on “The Trumpet in Camp and Battle,” but admitted that the origin of “Taps” had eluded him.
Oliver Norton, a Civil War veteran of the Army of the Potomac, read the article and wrote to Kobbé, recalling an 1862 occasion when “General Daniel Butterfield . . . sent for me, and showing me some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, asked me to sound them on my bugle.” (“The music was beautiful on that still summer night,” Norton wrote.)
Kobbé wrote to Butterfield, a Medal of Honor winner who, after the war, as assistant secretary of the Treasury, helped trigger the 1869 “Black Friday” scandal by agreeing — for a profit — to alert speculators about government gold sales. “I recall, in my dim memory, the substantial truth of the statement made by Norton,” Butterfield admitted.
Except that, as historian Russell H. Booth first noted in a 1977 article, a version of “Taps” was already current, in the form of the final bars of a bugle tattoo published in an 1835 manual of infantry tactics by General Winfield Scott. (It was one of 22 calls Scott considered necessary military knowledge.) Bugler (and “Taps” expert) Jari Villanueva concludes that Butterfield “revised [the] earlier call into the present day bugle call we know as Taps.”
Villanueva adds, “This is not meant to take credit away from him.” Indeed, Butterfield’s simpler, shorter version took hold; by the end of 1862, “Taps” was being played not only to signal “lights out,” but also for military funerals.
In a war in which burying the dead was often a haphazard act, it was one of the small efforts by which, as Drew Gilpin Faust has written, “soldiers demonstrated their resistance to the war’s casual erasure of the meaning of individual human life.” It still is.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@