Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Taps

As the sun rises over the mountains, one can hear the haunting melody of Taps being played by a lone bugler in the quiet little cemetery of Mona, Utah. The bugler comes to play every Memorial Day in honor of the service men and women buried there.

Our family has a tradition of going to the cemetery on Memorial Day to see the sunrise ceremony. The flag is raised at half mast, we hear the gun salute and listen to the famous military piece Taps played before we place flowers on loved ones gravesites.

Listening to the bugle play always brings a lump to my throat, tears to my eyes, and pride in my heart. My father served in the Air Force for four years, two of which were in a war zone in Korea where he saw the devastating effects of war both among people and land. He has a deep appreciation for our country, for it’s service men and women and therefore tried to instill within his own family that same appreciation. He is considering a military burial when that time comes as an expression of love for his country and the way he tried to live within it.

There is quite a story circulating in regards to the origin of the melody of Taps. The story is as follows:
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 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 a 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, is what we now know as "Taps."

While the story is certainly touching, historians have checked the facts only to find the story is merely a legend. Actually, according to a researcher from West Point, there is no historical evidence that a Captain by the name of Robert Ellicombe even existed in the Union Army. Historians from Arlington National Cemetery agree that the song did indeed originate in 1862 and it was while at Harrison’s Landing in Virginia, that the piece was written but that is where the facts in this story ends.

Taps was written by Brig. General Daniel Butterfield, an American Civil War General. The bugle call was to signal to the soldiers "lights out." Oliver W. Norton, Butterfield’s bugler, was the first to sound the new call. Within only a couple of months of it being written, both Union and Confederate armies used the call.

Today Taps can be heard at the conclusion of Military burials conducted with honors at Arlington National Cemetery, hundreds of ceremonies at cemeteries around the United States and at private funerals.

Each year Taps is sounded during the wreath ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, and it is still played nightly at military installations in non-deployed locations to signal "lights out."

However, there is one more account that involves a man by the name of John C. Tidball. He was a Union artillery captain who ordered the call to be sounded for a fallen soldier.
Army Col. James A. Moss, in an Officer's Manual initially published in 1911, reported the following account:

"During the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, a soldier of Tidball's Battery A of the 2nd Artillery was buried at a time when the battery occupied an advanced position concealed in the woods. It was unsafe to fire the customary three volleys over the grave, on account of the proximity of the enemy, and it occurred to Capt. Tidball that the sounding of Taps would be the most appropriate ceremony that could be substituted."

This may not have anything to do with the origin of the song, it is however, the first recorded instance of Taps being used in accord with a military funeral. Until then the call sounded meant that the solider’s day was done.

How fitting then, that if the call signifies that a solider’s day is done and it is time for lights to be put out, that the very same call is sounded one last time as that soldier or veteran is laid to rest. I think of the connotations this has with death. As they are laid to rest, the day is done, lights out, they are now laid safely to rest. It is not only honorable for those who have served, but it can be quite emotional for the family to hear their loved one respected in such a way. To have the call sounded, we are called to remember those who have given us so much that far too often we take for granted.

While the original version of the call was of course an instrumental piece, lyrics were added later. These words were written by Horace Lorenzo Trim:

Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar drawing nigh,
Falls the night.

Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest;
God is nigh.

Then goodnight, peaceful night;
Till the light of the dawn shineth bright.
God is near, do not fear,
Friend, goodnight.

Another verse of lyrics were added to a recording done by John Wayne, though it is unclear who wrote the words of the verse:

Fading light, Falling night;
Trumpet call, as the sun, sinks in flight
Sleep in peace, comrade dear,
God is near.

As we walked away from the ceremony, we looked at the gravesites of those who have gone before us. The cemetery is a beautiful resting place rich with history. Gravestones now weathered and aged date back to the early 1800’s. Many have short poetic statements rarely found on markers anymore. It’s not only interesting but educational to walk through the graveyard, reading the headstones found there.

There are men, some merely boys, and women as well, who fought and gave their lives so that I may have mine. And they are still doing it today. May I never forget that and be forever grateful for it.


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