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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 READ THE LAST PAGE 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

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30 Comments

  1. Robert Royce Robert Royce October 18, 2011

    Recently on PBS TV, a young 12-13 year old girl, played what was introduced as the original TAPS accompanied by the Dutch or Holland Philharmonic. It was an absolutely stunning performance by the young lady, by admitedly was not the 24 note version of TAPS and I have tried to obtain a copy of the music, ever since, to no avail A person could discern the notes of TAPS in the backgroung if you listened real hard, it was not the 24 note TAPS. If I could find this music I would be very happy- thank you for the opportunity to inquire about it.
    Sincerely, Robert Royce

  2. Matthew Mcgill Matthew Mcgill September 6, 2011

    Lights out! Life is a light so its such an appropriate Military Service sound for the calling of a member passing over! Its a piece of genius music that sounds respectful and fitting.

  3. David David June 30, 2011

    I’ve heard this story many times and because of this,I thought it was true.Now I just don’t know.While it does make for a good Taps story,I have not found one good document for or against it.Now if only I had more proof,proof,proof.

  4. John John June 12, 2011

    There’s nothing a Civil War afficionado loves more than a good myth. That’s why poignant, heart warming stories like Sgt. Kirkland et. al. find such credence, even to the point of having memorial statuary built in their honor. Like you said, they’re nice campfire tales – too bad the reality is so much more mundane, or even unpleasant.

  5. Pamela Plouffe Pamela Plouffe May 1, 2011

    I have the mystical version and shed a tear or two with it’s emotional appeal, however the truth should be told. If it did not originate with the General and his 24 notes, than who and where did it orignate from?

  6. C. RICK HARDMAN C. RICK HARDMAN April 17, 2011

    Question? Is taps for use with military deceased only? If so, then it would not be appropriate for ceremonies of non-military government employees, politicians or Merchant Mariners.

  7. Anne Hart Anne Hart November 24, 2010

    I received an email from one of my clients about Capt Ellicombe (TAPS). I have worked with disabled veterans for the past 24 years and was moved by the story and the presentation with all of the words. My first reaction was to pass it along to the clients I have email contact with…but thought I would check it out first and found your site. I don’t know what the truth is…but I found your version, though not as “moving”, to be more plausible. I grew up on military bases, lost my husband during the Vietnam War and these simple notes are a significant part of the fabric of my life. Who ever wrote them lives on in the lives of millions of people not just in this country but around the world. I would like to know if the words that were sent to me are accurate and did the same person who wrote the music write the words. If I can figure out how, I will forward the words I received to you. Appreciate the research you have done.

  8. Tapsbugler Tapsbugler Post author | November 17, 2010

    L. Mark

    It’s interesting that you might be a doubting Thomas. One of the things I plan to announce for the 150th anniversary is a substantial prize to anyone who can prove the myth. All that one needs to do is provide unit, hometown and brief bio of Captain Ellicombe and the name of the son.

  9. L. Mark L. Mark November 17, 2010

    Still not convinced. My son has been playng the taps for about 20 yrs —so will make my own judgement. Thanks. L.

  10. Iona Robertson Iona Robertson November 9, 2010

    I am so glad that I found this website. I traditionally speak at our school’s Remembrance Day Service – 500 students. I was planning to use the “Mythical” version of the origin of Taps. Thank you for setting me straight and giving me the proper info. I will put out the message to my friend who sent me the myth.

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