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The Taps Myth

Jari Villanueva, Taps Bugler and Historian

Almost every day when I check my e-mails, I get a message or two asking about or forwarding a story for my comment or enlightenment. It starts with, “Reportedly it all began during the Civil War…” and goes on to relate the story of Union Captain Ellicombe and how he finds his wounded Confederate son on a battlefield. The story is that the music of Taps is found in the pocket of the young man and that’s how the call came into being. It is a heartwarming and poignant story, but false.

The story began circulating again in early 2020. Please help by reading and knowing the truth of how this beloved call came into being.

What has been added is the phrase “but I’ve checked it out and it’s true..” Right…

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USA TODAY ARTICLE MAY 2020 ABOUT THE MYTH
CLICK ON THE PHOTO BELOW FOR THE ARTICLE


THE TAPS MYTH

MAKE SURE YOU SCROLL TO THE END FOR
THE TAPS MYTH CHALLENGE

Almost every day when I check my e-mails, I get a message or two asking about or forwarding a story for my comment or enlightenment. It starts with, “Reportedly it all began during the Civil War…” and goes on to relate the story of Union Captain Ellicombe and how he finds his wounded Confederate son on a battlefield. The story is that the music of Taps is found in the pocket of the young man and that’s how the call came into being. It is a heartwarming and poignant story, but false.

This story, of course, rates up there with the one that Colonel Oliver North tried to warn us about Osama Bin Laden during Congressional hearings and the one that Lee Marvin and Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) met as Marines on Iwo Jima,. Both stories contain a kernel of truth somewhere (North did testify at Congressional hearings, and Marvin and Keeshan were both Marines), yet the stories themselves are false. And like them, the Captain Ellicombe story is a yet another MYTH that makes it way around thanks to the Internet. Bad history, and we get to see a lot of it, needs to be corrected.

The story of Captain Robert Ellicombe (or Ellison, or Elli) and his Confederate son is a myth, a fake, a tall tale, a good anecdote to tell around the old campfire, but a story that, outside of the fact it takes place at Harrison’s Landing, holds no truth whatsoever. This is one of those stories that is reprinted and forwarded to others and makes its way around the Internet around Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day. The story gets printed in papers, newsletters, and, sad to say, even on some military websites as the true version of how the bugle call of Taps came into existence.

Here is how that social media starts:

“If any of you have ever been to a military funeral in which taps was played; this brings out a new meaning of it.
Here is something Every American should know. Until I read this, I didn’t know, but I checked it out and it’s true:
We in the United States have all heard the haunting song, ‘Taps…’ It’s the song that gives us the lump in our throats and usually tears in our eyes.
But, do you know the story behind the song? If not, I think you will be interested to find out about its humble beginnings.
Reportedly, it all began in 1862 during the Civil War,….”

My favorite line is “… I checked it out and it’s true”

Really? If you google Taps you will find the true story here and in many online articles as well as SNOPES.

I have sounded the call thousands of times as bugler at Arlington NAtional Cemetery and other National and State cemeteries and at hundreds of memorial services. I am also a bugle historian who has spent much time researching this topic. I was the curator of the Taps Exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery and am a Civil War re-enactor. I, along with other history buffs, have researched the real story and have tried to squash this myth.

LISTEN TO AN INTERVIEW ABOUT THE TAPS MYTH
BY CLICKING HERE 

Here is the MYTH:

“We in the United States have all heard the haunting song, ‘Taps.’ It’s the song that gives us that lump in our throats and usually tears in our eyes. But, do you know the story behind the song? If not, I think you will be interested to find out about its humble beginnings. Reportedly, it all began in 1862 during the Civil War, when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison’s Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land.

During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who lay severely wounded on the field. Not knowing if it was a Union or Confederate soldier, the Captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention. Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the Captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment.


When the Captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead.

The Captain lit a lantern and suddenly caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier. It was his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, the boy enlisted in the Confederate Army.

The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son full military burial despite his enemy status. His request was only partially granted. The Captain had asked if he could have a group of Army band members play a funeral dirge for his son at the funeral. The request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate.

But, out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him only one musician. The Captain chose a bugler. He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of the dead youth’s uniform. This wish was granted.

The haunting melody we now know as ‘Taps,’ used at military funerals, was born.”

That is the myth. The true story may not tug at the heartstrings as much but certainly can be documented and shown to be the correct factual story of how Taps came into being.

You can read the true story of the creation of Taps by clicking HERE.

Daniel Adams Butterfield
Oliver Willcox Norton

We know much about the two men involved with the creation of Taps. Both Daniel Adams Butterfield and Oliver Willcox Norton survived the Civil War and went on to become prosperous and respected businessmen and citizens. They wrote about their Civil War experiences and of the creation of Taps in July 1862.

Read about Daniel Butterfield by CLICKING HERE

Read about Oliver Willcox Norton by CLICKING HERE

There is no proof that a Captain Robert Ellicombe ever existed. The myth gives no indication of what unit or state he served. In order to be believed, one needs to produce muster, discharge or pension papers and background history of both father and son, units, etc. Also, where is the son’s grave? There is no basis at all to the story, except that it also occurred near Harrison’s Landing in July 1862, where the true birth of Taps took place.

So where did this myth come from?

I have traced this tale to a Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” story that Robert Ripley created for his short-lived TV program in 1949. This is chronicled in the book Ripley, the Modern Marco Polo: The Life and Times of the Creator of “Believe It Or Not” by Bob Considine, published by Doubleday & Co. in 1961. As Considine wrote: “The denouement of this is a coincidence incredible even by Rip’s standards.”

Robert Ripley

The Taps myth took on a life of its own and was even printed as fact in an Ann Landers or Dear Abby column. A retraction was later printed. It has acquired a renewed life on the Internet and is spread by many unsuspecting but well-meaning people who believe it to be true. It is unfortunate to see it on websites, especially military and veterans’ sites that should know better. It is hoped that those who are interested in history will spread the word to stop the myth.

If you would like to order a copy of the book
“24 Notes That Tap Deep Emotions”  CLICK HERE

 

Here is yet another story as to the Origin of Taps, If anyone could provide anymore information please contact me by clicking here: email address

Almost every family has some tale or legend handed down through the generations. Many, on investigating, prove to be based on a little truth and fact, but colored by each succeeding generation, until only a kernel of truth remains. Others are well documented and adhere pretty closely to the basic facts. It usually turns out that the tale with no documentation will bring defenders of this legend storming forth to attempt to attest to the veracity of family members, and at your peril will you take a stand in opposition.

This attitude I know for a fact, as I dared to question one such family tale and almost lost all family contact with aunts and uncles. I first heard the family legend about which I write from my grandfather and later from my mother. To better understand the family “legend”, I will give a short background.

My grandfather was born in Troy, Alabama in 1850. His parents were Milton M. Butterfield and his wife, Martha Maria Batchelder, both “born and bred Yankees.” He was from Olcott, New York and she was born in New Hampshire. According to Martha’s journal in 1846 she accepted a teaching position in Lowndsboro County, Alabama. Due to her health, she could not tolerate the cold climate of northern winters.

At the completion of the school year, she returned to the north via a boat on the Alabama River to Benton, Alabama, and on to Mobile, where she boarded another boat to New Orleans. She then boarded the Alexander Scott Mississippi River Boat for the trip to Cincinnati. She traveled on to Sandusky, Ohio by over-land stage, and concluded her trip in Springfield, Massachusetts, via the Erie Canal Boat, about which she had little in the way of compliments to report. In fact the less said the better.

She was married to Milton Butterfield September 22, 1847 in Nashua, New Hampshire. In 1849, once more, due to Martha’s health, the move was made to Alabama. They settled in Troy, Alabama until the purchase of land in Macon County (Now Bullock County) was completed and a school
constructed. Both Martha and Milton were teachers. In addition to teaching math, science, history and government, Milton taught music, as he was an accomplished musician. Martha taught French, Latin, English literature and geography. The school was successful and continued in operation until the outbreak of the War Between the States.

Milton and his younger brother, Frank, joined the Confederacy by enlisting in the Alabama 23rd Infantry, Company G. Milton received promotions and rose to the rank of Captain. The Company was sent to the defense of Vicksburg, serving in Lee’s Brigade, Stevenson’s Division. This unit was under the command of Col. F.K. Beck and Capt. A.C. Robard of the 3rd Brigade. When Vicksburg fell to the Union Army, Milton’s group was among the troops released by Grant who were not required to sign their parole, thus making it possible to return honorably to the Confederate forces.

Milton stopped at his home in Union Springs, Alabama, prior to returning to the Confederate Army. While at home, among the tales he told his family of the fall of Vicksburg, was the one of the “burial music.” It seems the men serving with him, felt there should be more of a service when they had to bury one of their companions. They asked Milton to play something on his “horn” when they buried a companion. Milton demonstrated to the family the few simple notes he had composed for his men’s burial service. Those few simple notes were the notes we hear today at all military funerals known as “Taps.”

When Milton rejoined his troops he was sent to Chickamauga, Tennessee to serve as Clerk of the Court-martial Court. In a letter written to his family, he reported that while he was at this post, a relative of his, General Daniel Butterfield of the Union Army was also in Chickamauga inspecting the Union Forces. Under a Flag of Truce, he visited his relative. During their conversation Milton told of composing the “burial music,” and since General Butterfield was quite interested, he wrote down the simple notes on the back of an envelope and gave it to the General.

As a child, I was interested in anything my grandfather told me of his earlier life. This story of the “burial music” fascinated me. Many years later I was looking for some information in the Encyclopedia Britannica and came across a short biographical sketch of General Butterfield and learned that he was credited with composing “Taps.” By this time my grandfather and all of his children were dead, and there was no one left for me to consult about our family legend.

I rather doubt that my grandfather ever read an article about the good General or had any desire to check on the “burial music.” He was 13 years of age when his father visited home following Vicksburg, and remembered well all the family activities and conversations with his father, as that was the last time he saw his father.

Milton was attached to a scouting party during the Siege of Atlanta, and was killed and buried at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Martha made her home
with my grandfather and his family following the close of the War. After her death, the family moved to Birmingham, Alabama. Prior to Martha’s death, letters, which should have been saved, were discarded, including the letter from Chickamauga. And so, there is no proof that my great grandfather’s life other than records of his military service.


I have no documentation, diary, letters, etc to use as proof of the “burial music” being “Taps” as we know it today. And so I can only tell you this family legend and let your own imagination decide whether it is FACT or FICTION.

 

If you believe the Ellicombe story and that the Butterfield/Norton Story
is not true, here is a challenge.

If you can prove the Captain Robert Ellicombe/Confederate Son story is true, I will award you a Gold Plated, Vincent Bach Stradivarius Field Trumpet (bugle) valued at $2,000.00. This is rare instrument-one of the kind made for the US Army Band used at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington-like the one pictured below.

HERE IS WHAT YOU WILL NEED

Proof of the existence of Captain Robert Ellicombe.

1. You’ll need his unit and pension records. Remember he has to be in the US Army at camp at Harrison’s Landing during the summer of 1862.
2. The name of the son and where he is buried.

CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT YOUR PROOF

30 Comments

  1. Tapsbugler Tapsbugler Post author | January 27, 2020

    Thanks Keith!

  2. Keith Sisco Keith Sisco January 27, 2020

    Jari is abosolutley correct! This second account of ‘Taps” is completely false. While it may make for a good emotional read, it is utter nonsense.
    I played in a Civil War reneactment band that (at the time) I was principal musician. Part of the playing was also presenting histories of the music, instruments, battles, soldiers life, and I was very fond of talking about ‘Taps’. Oliver Willcox Norton and Gen. Butterfield wrote of their experiences in the Civil War. They created ‘Taps’, and it has grown to be an honored tradtion-Elliscombe has not even been shown to EVER really existed. Carry on….

  3. Jeffery Barbour Jeffery Barbour June 7, 2019

    My First Patriot Guard Mission, I heard the digital bugle. It sucked. I had not played my trumpet since the 10th grade in 1974. I was encouraged to pick it up and play again. I bought a bugle at the Endview Plantation in Newport News VA. Since I have been playing TAPS for grave dedications and memorials. I’ll play till my lungs will no longer allow it. (20+ years Fire Department related exposure). I was at the 150th at the Berkeley Plantation. A great inspiration.

  4. DON HEAD DON HEAD May 23, 2019

    It may be an excellent example of fiction, but I would suggest it does not claim to have ‘composed’ “Taps”…only that the captain discovered the ‘notes’ on a piece of paper in the boy’s pocket. Oh well, I still can’t hear it without tearing up every time!

  5. D Marshall D Marshall March 12, 2017

    My son is in marching and concert band as well as Orchestra. He plays most brass instruments to include bugle. he wants to know the significance of the cord or braid found on many of the bugles. He is also in Boy Scouts and AFROTC and wants an appropriate cord to put on his bugle. Thank you

  6. Meg Meg April 24, 2016

    Jari–hopefully we did Taps justice in Aftermath of Battle. I certainly tried!! I have had a difficult time finding a recording of Extinguish Lights. Is there other than the young lady who plays bugle on the YouTube offering, if that is even it? Thanks, Meg

  7. Ropedrum Ropedrum January 30, 2015

    For a historically accurate and fitting arrangement for performance see, “Extinguish Lights” (or Taps) on page 38 of The Bugler’s Call Book under the heading: Cavalry Calls, contained in the back of Elias Howe’s United States Regulation Drum and Fife Instructor published in 1861.

    Most assuredly “Taps” was not a Confederate music composition.

  8. Tapsbugler Tapsbugler Post author | November 13, 2014

    No one said it did….

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