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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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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.


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.


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.



  1. John Skinner John Skinner November 11, 2014

    I write in relation to The Last Post, a bugle tune played by the British and Commonwealth military forces since about the 1500s when the British were fighting in Europe, mainly Holland, Belgium and France. The Officer of the Guard would take the Guard from the camp through the nearby town where soldiers were on leave.
    He would take the Guard to various places within the town where soldiers may be, ie, theatres, pubs, wine shanties or brothels.
    The Officer of the Guard would advise soldiers it was time to return to their barracks or billets. Each of the stops were known as “posts” and at the last “post” the bugle would sound the tune which became The Last Post.
    Any soldiers caught outside the barracks or his billet after Last Post would be arrested by the Guard and locked up for the night.
    That is the historically correct version of the Last Post.
    It has nothing to do with Taps, the American Civil War or 1862.

  2. Tapsbugler Tapsbugler Post author | April 9, 2014

    Thank you Sir!

  3. Greg Sullaway Greg Sullaway April 9, 2014

    Thanks for clarifying this myth for me!
    I read this as a anecdote in “That’s Not In My American History Book” by Thomas Ayres, and really got excited about this and want to include it on my website as a new part call History Shorts. But as a closet historian I want to ensure I had my facts correct. You have done this for me.
    Thank you for your service to this country!
    Greg Sullaway
    USA Retired

  4. Rick Lamoreaux CSM(ret) Rick Lamoreaux CSM(ret) March 20, 2013

    I served in the marines 14 years doing a tour at Marine Barracks Washington D.C.,after my return from RVN in1967, I stayed out until 1975 wheb I entered yht Army reserve in my hometown. I stayed there for 21 years, retiring as a Command Sergeant Major. I lost men in Vietnam including one who did not return from a mission. My late father-in-law was a WW II prisoner of war. I have heard taps played so many times I can’t remember and I still get choked up from the music and it’s significance. Between that and Amazing Grace, there are no more two beautiful and heart rendering songs in existence

  5. Stan Brangham Stan Brangham November 11, 2012

    My MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) in the Marine Corps was as a Field Music (Bugler) trained at Field Music School Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego California (1954). Our information concerning Taps was as you have related. I did not hear of the Captain Ellicombe version until about 4 or 5 years ago (about 2008/2009) and while it is an interesting version I harbored some doubt because of the basic history of many of our Military Bugle Calls that we studied and learned about during our training. While there could be some validity to the Ellicombe version I am prone to believe it would have been brought to light during our school training.

  6. Carlos Carlos July 11, 2012

    Efectivamente es muy emotiva la historia y/o mito del Capitán ellicombe y su hijo que estudiaba música en el sur y se alistó al Ejército confederado. Empero, no se dice el nombre del soldado (hijo) a fin de poder seguir averiguando sobre la vericidad de esta historia, que en verdad está mejor, como origen, que la del Gral Batherffield o la traida de Francia. Espero que sigan averiguando en la Histopria americana de la Guerra civil Americana; tal vez en la Serie Norte y Sur se diga algo al respecto.

  7. Charles Bonner Charles Bonner June 19, 2012

    So, why would a General military band leader compose music on the back of a envelope while in camp?

    Did Echo Taps originate at Berkely, or is that a Myth too?

  8. Bill Seaman Bill Seaman April 1, 2012

    That story was circulated for many years and taken by many people as true. However, If such a person existed, military records do not show it. According to Military records from the Civil War, there was NO Captain Robert Ellicombe in the Union Army. Yet this story has been widely told all around the world and has been believed by many to be the true story of taps.

    The story does have a few truths in it. “Taps” was first played in 1862 at a funeral near Harrison’s landing. Further, we know that many fathers wept over the death of their sons in this war. Brother fought against brother and father against sun during this time when our country was divided.

    Credit for the music is given by many people to Brigadear General Daniel Butterfield, who had the music played to extinguish lights at bedtime.

    The story about the actual playing of Taps at a funeral is “said to be the following:

    Tidball’s Battery A of the Second Artillery was in an advanced position. They were a close distance to the enemy and fighting from a concealed position. A young man from the unit had been killed in action, and his friends were trying to bury him with military honors.

    This is from The Story of Taps

    As Retold by Dr. Mike Lockett, The Normal Storyteller

  9. Joseph Walker Joseph Walker December 29, 2011

    Wow!! I found you quite by accident, and am I ever glad that I did. I have now for quite a few years heard the FALSE story of how TAPS came to be, and I as so many others believed it! Thank God that I found you! I have bookmarked your site so that I may tell others where they too can learn the truth of this great Bugle Call. I am military veteran of both the US Air Force and the US Army. I am the news editor of my local VFW Post’s newsletter and I want so much to quote you and reference your web site in my Memorial Day edition. Thank you.

  10. Clive Hook Clive Hook November 14, 2011

    The piece the young girl is playing is Il Silenzio, originally composed in 1965 by Nino Rosso

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