When I was growing up, my older sister played Taps for the town Memorial Day ceremonies—she stood off in the distance away from her marching band, and it was a source of family pride. Both of my daughters have played Taps for their 8th-grade classes when they traveled to D.C. and visited Arlington Cemetery, also a source of family pride. So, here is my opinion piece as printed in today's edition of Small Town Newspaper:
Every year it’s the same thing—I make my way to the cemetery and stand with the relatively few others who gather for the city’s Memorial Day service. There are the laying of the wreaths, the readings of In Flanders Fields and The Gettysburg Address, a speech or two, a prayer or two, a song or two and a moment of silence. Not that these elements get old or are meaningless, but even when well presented, they can sometimes feel like tradition for tradition’s sake and nothing else.
Despite the sameness from year to year, there is one element that never fails to be fresh for me, the Memorial Day service staple that reaches me each time I hear it—the playing of Taps. The bugle call speaks volumes, 24 simple notes that offer a thousand words of peace and a call to rest.
Taps is a lullaby, after all, so similar to Brahms’ Lullaby, it could be played for sleepy children if not for the bugle’s volume. Instead, it is reserved as a tribute to fallen soldiers and as a call for lights out for those still living.
The military has historically used bugle calls to communicate orders. There is a call to assembly, a mail call, a mess call, a call for retreat and a call to arms. They are uniform and taught to buglers with precise instructions so that any soldier anywhere could know their meaning. During the Civil War, the Union Army had an established Lights Out call borrowed from the French, and when buglers sounded it, troops knew to turn in for the night.
One general found the call too harsh, though, given his particular circumstances and the need his men had for comfort, for a lullaby. General Daniel Butterfield had led his Union troops through the bloody skirmishes of the Seven Days Battle, a series of battles fought against the Confederates over the terrain outside of Richmond. After a week of fighting, almost 16,000 Union soldiers and more than 20,000 Confederates were dead, and the survivors camped for the night to lick their wounds and to regroup.
Butterfield took stock of his men, minus the 600 he had lost, and determined the Lights Out call was too formal. He later wrote, “The call of Taps did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be, and I called in some one who could write music, and practiced a change in the call of Taps until I had it suit my ear.”
He summoned his brigade bugler, Oliver Norton, and had him sound the new Taps to signal Lights Out, to let the exhausted men know they were finally free to rest even without their fallen comrades. As the story goes, other units in the Army of the Potomac heard the revised call being played that summer night, and their buglers visited Butterfield’s camp to learn it for themselves. It spread from there throughout both the Union and Confederate armies as the new Taps, what soldiers began calling Go To Sleep. It was eventually named an official military bugle call, and by 1891, it was being played at military funerals in a re-united nation.
The soothing effect of Taps spread beyond the military, and lyrics were added to the notes—“Go to sleep, peaceful sleep. May the soldier or sailor God keep. On the land or the deep, safe in sleep.” And over time, other sentimental stanzas were added—“Love, good night. Must thou go, when the day and the night need thee so?”
When I hear the music of the bugle call, I don’t believe lyrics are necessary. The simplicity of Taps, the rising and falling of the notes as they ease into a restful end, say all the bugle call needs to say: brave soldiers who have died in duty for your country, in fighting on our behalf, here is your final honor. We give you permission to end the day, to lay down your arms and to rest your head.
Year after year, through the seeming dustiness of our traditions, we give you not a harsh call to action but a soothing lullaby and our renewed and sincere appreciation. “May the soldier or sailor God keep.”