Good night, good soldiers, and thanks

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” — G.K. Chesterton

Those of you who read my stuff regularly know I’m a history buff.

So, in honor of Memorial Day — which happens Monday — I wanted to look up the history of the playing of taps, that mournful bugle tune played at military funerals and at Memorial Day ceremonies.

First, you’ll notice I didn’t capitalize taps or place quotation marks around it, as newspapers would the title of a song. That’s because taps isn’t a song, it’s a bugle call — which, for the military, acts as a signal or an order, not a melody.

According to a post on the U.S. Army’s website, bugle calls have acted as an important part of American military life since before the Revolutionary War. Before advanced radio communication, before the telegraph, before telephones, bugle playing allowed a commander to communicate with his troops over long distances and over the cacophony of battle.

“As the U.S. Army developed, it standardized the use of these bugle calls for a disciplined lifestyle,” the Army said in its post.

The bugle call taps began as a nightly order for lights out, according to a post from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

According to the VA, the U.S. Army originally had a call that meant “extinguish lights” that it borrowed from the French.

In 1862, however, the Union’s Maj. Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield, who considered the extinguish lights call too formal for his brigade, asked his bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, to help him come up with something different for his men at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia.

From his early days in the military, Butterfield knew another signal, by then long out of favor, called tattoo, which the Army had used to signal troops to prepare for evening roll call.

Butterfield took the last five-and-a-half measures of tattoo, reworked the notes, and asked Norton to play them.

As Norton put it, according to the VA:

“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. I did this several times, playing the music as written. He changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me. After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call” nightly, instead of the regulation call for lights out.

The signal became known as taps, according to the VA, most likely because of the three drum taps sometimes used instead of a bugle as a signal for lights out.

After Norton began playing the call nightly, buglers from neighboring brigades heard it and came to Norton, asking him to show them how to play it. Though no formal military directive had been given, taps took over throughout other units of the Union Army.

Taps finally showed up in the regulations in 1891 as the mandated call for military funerals. It was first played at a funeral when Capt. John C. Tidball ordered it played for the burial of a cannoneer killed in action, according to the VA.

Now, military buglers sound taps as the final call every evening on military installations and play it at every military funeral to honor the service of the deceased.

I love that story, learning that taps originated as a call for lights out.

It’s as if our playing it says to our fallen soldiers, “Good night. Rest easy. The battle is over. Sleep well.

“And thank you.”

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.


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