Taps at Gettysburg-What Taps means to me
by Jari Villanueva
100 Nights of Taps Gettysburg
On any weekday at cemeteries throughout the United States, a military ritual occurs that is both familiar and moving. An escort of honor comes to attention and presents arms. Next, a firing party fires three rifle volleys. After the briefest of moments, a bugler sounds the 24 notes of Taps, America’s most famous bugle call. The flag, held by members of the military honor guard, is then folded into a triangle reminiscent of the cocked hat from the American Revolution and then presented to the next of kin on behalf of the president and a grateful nation.
These military customs, many of which are rooted deeply and distantly in our past, have changed little over the years. The military honor guards, flag-draped caskets, the firing of three volleys, the sounding of Taps, and the folding of the flag are steeped in our history and the rendering of these honors is the ceremonial paying of respect and the final demonstration of the country’s gratitude to those who have faithfully served and defended our nation.
Of all the military bugle calls, none is so easily recognized or more apt to evoke emotion than Taps. The melody is both eloquent and haunting and the history of its origin is interesting and somewhat clouded in controversy and myth. The use of Taps is unique to the United States military, as the call is sounded at funerals, wreath-laying ceremonies and memorial services in addition to being performed as the final call of the day. Taps originally began as a signal to extinguish lights. The call was created by Union General Daniel Butterfield in July, 1862, while in camp at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia following the Seven Days’ battles during the Peninsular Campaign. With the help of brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, Butterfield replaced the regulation call for lights out (a call he felt too formal sounding to end the day) with the 24 notes we know today as Taps. For a more comprehensive history on this bugle call please visit www.TapsBugler.com
It is fitting that Taps is sounded each evening during the summer in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg as part of the 100 Nights of Taps Gettysburg 2018 program as it remembers those who have served our nation and honors those in uniform today.
We are now over half way through the season of 100 Nights of Taps. We have had 20 States and District of Columbia represented by active and former members of each branch of the military, National Guard, State Militias and Auxiliaries. In addition performers have included professional musicians, members of veteran service organizations (American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Sons of American Legion), teachers, amateur players, historical re-enactors, university students, high school students and players as young as 12.
As Wendy Allen, founder of the program, explains, “It is difficult to explain how significant this One Hundred Nights of Taps, Gettysburg, 2018 has become to the men, women and children who attend it. My mantra throughout this experience is that we put on a unique civilian ceremony, with simple protocol but earnest intent, to give our steadfast thanks and to honor to those individuals who have died in the service of the United States, with a particular focus on those who rest in Gettysburg National Cemetery in the Gettysburg National Military Park.”
The idea for 100 Nights came from the ceremony held every evening at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium. At 8 pm buglers from the Last Post Association close the road which passes under the memorial and sound the call Last Post the equivalent of Taps. This ceremony has been carried on uninterrupted since July 2, 1928. Wendy thought it would be an appropriate ceremony to have in Gettysburg during the summer months. After gaining permission from the National Park Service the first ceremony was held on Memorial Day, 2017.
The 100 Nights of Taps Gettysburg ceremony is held at 7 p.m. ceremony at the Soldiers’ National Monument which stands in the center of the large cemetery. From either entrance points, it is a pleasant stroll by the graves of those who served. For some the walk may be strained. But they still come by the dozens. The program is never longer than ten minutes and yet many people are moved to tears. That is a profound reflection on people’s love of country and those who have defended it with their last full measure of devotion. Many young children who attend the program sit around the stony path close to where the presenter stands to be near the participants. They can be as close as they like and they usually are. They listen to the presenter’s words very carefully and are always mesmerized by the bugler. They learn about real bravery and, most importantly, they learn that the brave shall never be forgotten.
The crowds have been noticeably larger this year. The popularity of the program has been mostly generated by word of mouth. Even despite rain, people arrive to hear those 24 notes.
The program is sponsored by The Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, Taps for Veterans and the National Park Service. This year we are honored to have Kanstul instrument maker of California involved. They have generously donated a copper bugle that will be given away on the last evening to a bugler who sounded the call during the summer. The bugle is currently on display at the Wills House in Gettysburg.
To many Americans Taps conveys an important message through its 24 notes. When sounded at night the call has given a sense of security and safety to Soldiers and also signaled that another day in the service to their country was done and all was well. Because of the melodious and poignant nature of the melody it is no wonder that it was adopted as the final call at funerals. As Gustav Kobbe stated in an 1898 Century article: “Played slowly and expressively, it has a tender, touching, mournful character, in keeping with the fact that it is sounded not only for ‘lights out,’ but also over the soldier’s grave, be he general or private, so that as with ‘lights out’ night closes in upon the soldier’s day, so with the same call the curtain rolls down upon his life.”
When I sound the call at a ceremony I’m sometimes approached by folks who wish to thank me for being part of the service. A reply of, “You are welcome,” has always seemed inappropriate or inadequate, so I say, “It is my honor.” I think Oliver Willcox Norton said it best: “There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call. Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air.”
-Jari Villanueva served at Arlington National Cemetery for 23 years as an Air Force Bugler. A nationally known bugle historian, he is a coordinator for 100 Nights of Taps Gettysburg 2018 and a board member of Taps For Veterans. His website is www.TapsBugler.com