Story of “Taps”

With Veteran’s Day approaching, I want to share with you a piece of historical trivia that I think we all hold close to our heart … the haunting melody of “Taps”. The song that always gives us a lump in our throat and creates tears in our eyes. But, do you know the story behind the song?

It began, reportedly, during the Civil War in 1862, when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison’s Landing, Virginia. The Confederate Army camped on the other side of the narrow strip of land.

During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who was severely wounded in 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 to the Union camp for medical attention.

Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the Captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward the encampment. When the Captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier, but he 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 … his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out, and without consulting his father, the young man enlisted in the Confederate Army.

Heartbroken, the following morning Captain Ellicombe asked permission 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 denied since the soldier was a Confederate. But, out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him 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.

His wish was granted and the haunting melody, which we now know as “Taps” used at military funerals, was born.

I found several versions of “Taps”.

The original version was purely instrumental, but there have been several later lyrics added.

The first, written by Horace Lorenzo Trim, is shown below:




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 skies

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 popular version, penned and harmonized by famed composer Josef Pasternack is:

Love, sweet dreams!

Lo, the beams of the light Fairy moon kissed the streams,

Love, Goodnight!

Ah so soon!

Peaceful dreams!

Another set of lyrics, used in a recording made by John Wayne about the song, is:

Fading light

Falling night

Trumpet call, as the sun, sinks in fright

Sleep in peace, comrades dear,

God is near.

Many Scouting Groups around the world sing the second verse of Taps (“Day is Done..”) at the close of a camp or campfire. It is often referred to as Vespers, meaning evening prayer.

In researching, I found other explanations on how “Taps” was born; and although they seemed to have merit, I like this historical story the best.  It might be an example of creative nonfiction or it could be historically correct, I doubt anyone knows for certain.

Have you heard of a different account on how “Taps” came to be?

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A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West.

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38 thoughts on “Story of “Taps””

  1. Hi Phyllis,

    Taps always makes me cry. This is a problem as my husband teaches boy scouts to play it on bugles. I’m known locally as Mrs. Brownley, the lady with the allergies.

    Your post made me cry, too.

  2. Thanks, Margaret. I have boy scout grandsons and admire scout leaders (I was a Girl Scout and a leader for my girls). What a special man you have! A recent special moment with my scouts (they are both in the same pack, which just celebrated it’s 50th year) was when they learned flag etiquette and I loaned them my father’s flag that was on his casket. That’d be their great-grandfather. It was so special to them and I have some wonderful pictures of the flag flying over the school that not only do the little boys attend but so did their mothers. Very, very special day. And the flag came back folded up properly. Good scouts! Hugs, P

  3. What a heartbreaking story, true or not. The Civil War broke so many hearts. How fitting that a piece of music that tugs at the heart so would have originated during that conflict. I was sharing this post with my husband and couldn’t even finish reading it. We are a military family. His dad is buried at Arlington – cold, rainy day and taps – hard to forget. We have attendede several military funerals or been at cemeteries when there has been one. Whether you know the person or not, Taps will get to you.
    Thanks for an interesting post, as usual.

  4. Patricia, thanks for sharing you and your husband’s story. A lump came to my throat reading your response. Big hugs and hats off to your family. If it weren’t for our soldiers and the families behind them, our great country would not be what it is today. Big salutes to them all! Thanks for checking in today with us and glad you enjoyed the post. Big hugs from Texas, P

  5. Phyliss, this is wonderful! I never knew the story behind Taps. Very poignant and touching. I’m sure that captain felt such despair when he saw that the dead soldier was his son. I can’t even imagine.

    I’m heading off to the Ranching Heritage Museum in a few minutes with a friend. Wish you were here. Maybe one of these days we can go together.

    Again, a great blog!

  6. The song is so sad. I always cry when I hear it. I’m looking forward to your next book Give Me a Texas Outlaw.

  7. Hearing Taps always makes me cry and now I find that even reading about it has the same effect. Between that and the 21 gun salute, a military funeral always touches me like nothing else can.

    Four years and three days ago, on a bright blue and gold day with columns of flags snapping in the wind, I heard Taps played for my Daddy. I cannot explain how that comforted me and broke my heart at the same time.

    In our area, the American Legion members volunteer to provide the bugler and riflemen.
    Thanks, Phyllis, for honoring our veterans today and thanks to those who provide their services.

  8. Thanks for this lovely post today. It was interesting and enlightening as well. Thanks for honoring these veterans who deserve so much.

  9. I’ve heard of the different story on how Taps came about, but off the top of my head I can’t recall what that story was.

    I choke up every time I hear this song, being the wife of a military man, I hear it often. When I played trumpet in high school I was one of 2 people requested by our band director to play Taps at Memorial Day services.

  10. What a beautiful story, brought cold chills! I also choke up when I hear tha Taps song, its beautiful but so sad. Thanks for sharing this story with us!

  11. Elisabeth, that’s the other story I found later, as I researched. It was interesting, but as a writer, the Butterfield story sounded military, while this one was so emotional. Thanks for dropping by.

  12. Linda, dang your hide. I’ve been wanting to go to the Ranching Museum for a long time and it sure would be worth the hour and a half drive down there, but I’m glad you have another friend to go with. From what I’ve heard, to see everything it’ll take more than one day, so we’ll go soon … but when it’s not as windy and cold as it is up in the Panhandle today. Hopefully, it’s warmer a little south. Hugs, P

  13. Hi Phyliss. Very touching story, Phyliss. Thanks for sharing with us.

    I have quite a reverse thing happen when I hear taps or a bugle (although as I’ve grown older, it isn’t so profound anymore). And that’s a sensation of fear. Often in the land of the American Indian those taps were a prelude to the slaughter of an Indian village. The notes were different, perhaps, but the bugle was the same, same tone, etc. So often, when I hear that same tone, a sense of forboding comes over me.

    It was a very touching story, however. 🙂

  14. Goldie, thanks for stopping by. We’re looking forward to “Give Me a Texas Outlaw” being released, too. We got a preview of the cover and it has a sexy outlaw on it with a lot of skin showing, a low hung gunbelt and all the bullets gone. His Colt is in his waistband. We like the cover, and hope you all like the book even better.

  15. Judy H, thank you for your heartfelt comment. It’s a memory that will never go away, and shouldn’t. My daddy was buried on the 31st of December on a cold windy day, so I can relate. I’m so thankful for all of the veterans’ service to our country. The American Legion honor our military at their services in this area, too. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Beautiful post, Phyliss, I have tears in my eyes. What wonderful information for this time of year. During my Girl Scout years, we sane the second verse, and when I used it in Hearts Crossing Ranch, my editor suggested calling it Vespers. I hadn’t heard that term before for it.

    I will always remember the bugler at President Kennedy’s funeral who messed up a bit on the sixth note. I always reckoned it was because he held back tears. oxoxox

  17. Hi Phyliss,

    I never got to be a Girl Scout growing up, but I was a leader for my daughter’s troop, and had a wonderful co-leader who knew “all things scouting” so we sang the 2nd verse around the campfire before we went to bed at the campgrounds every night before bed. I always cry, too. I heard some time ago that the armed forces has so few buglers now that can play taps that at military funerals they generally just use a tape of it. I think that is sad, too. I have a book that I got at Barnes & Noble on the bargain book table about the origin of taps. It’s not very long, but it’s very interesting. It has a lot of the legends in it about how taps originated. It is really fascinating. Great post!

  18. Very interesting. I love the story. It sure could’ve happened that way. The civil war was filled with brother-against-brother type stories. Thanks for sharing. I didn’t even know it had words. Love you, Janet

  19. Ellie and Winter, thanks for your comments. Winter, I can only imagine how you felt playing “Taps”. I play the radio … honest to goodness. I’m so bad even at singing that my daughter tapped me on the shoulder at church one day and asked me not to sing! That’s pretty dern bad. Both of my girls are musically inclined, and I know it came from their father, not me. Miss Quilt Lady, thanks for commenting. You all have a great day. Hugs, Phyliss

  20. Anne and Minna, thanks for leaving your post. Karen, your comment was very interesting to me. I can see how it would effect you for sure, and it’s amazing how one thing can elicit such strong feelings from so many people and they are all different. Thanks for sharing such personal feelings. You’re a jewel.

  21. Anne, Minna and Tanya, good to hear from you all. Tanya, I’d almost forgotten about the deal at Kennedy’s funeral. I was in high school and we were glued to the TV all weekend long. School was let out on Monday for his funeral. Thanks for bringing back memories. I bet you’re right about the emotion with the bugler. Can you imagine how much pressure was on him that day. It’s hard for me to even imagine.

  22. Thanks Crystal GB, Cheryl P and Janet for your insight. Cheryl, what fond memories of scouting. I’ve heard the same thing about having to use CD’s at funerals and events. So sad. It’s just sad in general that kids aren’t as involved in scouting and music as they once were. Just too many other exciting opportunities out there but nothing like boy and girl scouts, and of course music, to teach discipline and serving others…my humble opinion. I might have to get that book from BN. It sounds interesting. Hugs to you all, P

  23. I haven’t heard of any other versions but I most definitely thought the one you gave was extremely touching and I am going to consider it the “true” story. Sort of the same topic – my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother just passed away this week and they have been learning about the Lakota ways and at her funeral they sang two Lakota songs accompanied by hand drums for his mother. It too was very touching.

  24. What a sad story. There is some music that really makes you stop and listen and Taps is definitely on that list.

  25. Janet, Tabitha, Mary and Colleen … loved to hear from you all. I really appreciate your coming by and reading my post. Thanks so much. Hugs to you all, P

  26. Really interesting information. Thanks for making us aware of Veteran’s Day-we don’t celebrate that enough with the reverence it is due.

  27. Very intersting information..thabks for that. I once interviewed a guy for my Speech class in college who had played taps at the funeral of Ira Hayes, the Arizona Native American who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. It was a very sad story of Mr. Hayes life after he returned from the war. I also had a friend who played taps at the funerals at Arlington Cemetery during WWII. He said the hardest times of playing were those burials that happened during a rain. I think they would all be hard.

  28. Catslady, you made me cry. What a touching story. Thank you for sharing, and the best to your daughter and her boyfriend. Bless their hearts.

    Estella, Maureen and Joye, thank each of you for stopping by and reading my story on “Taps”. Whether it’s an accurate reflection of the facts or not, it’s very powerful and does make one stop and think.

    Everyone is in the hat for tooday’s drawing, and so check back later for the winner! Big Texas hugs to all you all, Phyliss

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