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America’s most famous bugle call “lights out” commonly known as Taps turns 150-years-old on Saturday. Still sounded every night at American military bases around the world, Taps is also sounded at the funerals of American military personnel, wreath-laying ceremonies, and memorial services.
Taps has a long and interesting history. The military units of many countries have a “lights out” call that may or may not be also sounded at funerals, but Taps is uniquely American.
The call to “extinguish lights” at the end of the day has been part of the American military for generations. Especially important when timepieces were few and far between, the “day is done” signal was an integral part of the day on the battlefield. Originally, the American “lights out” signal was sounded in Silas Casey’s “Tactics”—a tune that was borrowed from the French military. American Civil War, Union side General Daniel Butterfield was displeased with “Tactics” believing it to be too formal. Aided by brigade bugler Oliver Willcox Norton, they wrote the tune Taps to honor the men with an air that conveyed a more pleasant atmosphere. In a letter written by Norton to the magazine August Century, Norton told the story of how Taps came to be written.General Daniel Butterfield, then commanding our Brigade, sent for me, and showing me some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, asked me to sound them on my bugle. I did this several times, playing the music as written. He changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me. After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call for Taps thereafter in place of the regulation call.
The tune was written following the Seven Days Battle, part of the Peninsular Campaign where the soldiers were encamped at Harrison’s Landing Virginia. The call was sounded for the first time in July of 1862. From that night forward, the new “day is done” call spread quickly. Following that first monumental call, Norton was besieged by requests from other buglers asking for copies of the music to the tune. Norton gladly provided the music and the signal was heard and copied in all of the various locations occupied by the Union Army. As the Confederacy used the same drill manuals as the Union, they were using “Tactics” as their “lights out” signal as well. Upon hearing the new signal, the Confederate army began to use it also thereby providing a commonality between the two armies that had previously ceased to exist.
Several commemorative activities are taking place around the country with the largest taking place at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Here, beginning at 10:00AM, Taps will be played by a mass of buglers and then again at 12:00PM in several locations around the cemetery.