Armies have used trumpet calls as signals to the troops for centuries. Because early trumpets had no valves and early trumpeters played only the lowest notes in the overtone series, only four or five notes are available. When trumpets became fully chromatic in the early nineteenth century with the invention of valves, military calls did not take advantage of the easy availability of extra notes. In fact, the military soon gave up trumpets in favor of bugles for their basic calls.
As simple as these calls must be, someone had to compose them. In recent history, the task has usually fallen to military band masters: capable, thoroughly trained musicians. For example, David Buhl, the leader of Napoleon’s cavalry band, composed not only the signals used to regulate soldiers’ activities, but also a number off ceremonial fanfares for an ensemble of trumpets, horns, and trombones. These compositions, including not only battle signals, but signals to extinguish lights for the night and to wake up in the morning, were issued in army drill manuals.
The best known American military tune, Taps, is an interesting exception, the work of the musically illiterate Gen. Daniel Butterworth in 1862 with the help of his musically literate bugler Oliver Norton.
As a colonel in the 12th Regiment of the New York State Militia, Butterfield had issued an order in 1859 that all officers and non-commissioned officers be thoroughly familiar with the first thirty pages of the first volume of Winfield Scott’s manual on tactics. He apparently considered thorough familiarity to include the ability to sound all the bugles calls, as he mentioned in a letter to the magazine Century in 1898. He also mentioned that he had devised a short call to precede all other calls that were intended for his brigade alone.
Scott’s manual included a lights-out call known as “Scott’s Tattoo,” but shortly before the war started, another signal replaced it. Butterfield disliked it. It seemed to formal to signal the end of day. Taps, as we know it, greatly resembles the last line of “Scott’s Tattoo.” Butterfield’s and Norton’s recollections differ somewhat, but it appears that Butterfield worked out some changes in rhythm to make the piece smoother and more melodic, found someone to write his version on paper, and then went to Norton to polish it further.
Norton (also writing in 1898) recalled that after he started sounding Taps, buglers of other brigades asked him for copies of the music, and thereafter, it rapidly spread throughout the union army.
How did a signal to return to camp and extinguish lights for the night become so famous as a call for military funerals? Later in 1862, a cannoneer of Battery A, 2nd (or 3rd) Artillery, was killed in action. Traditionally, his regiment would have honored his burial by firing three volleys, but Captain John S. Tidball realized that it would cause renewed fighting with the enemy so close. He ordered the sounding of Taps as a substitute. Again, the practice spread throughout the army until it eventually became mandatory.