28 May 2007

The origin of "taps" -- fact and fiction

It's such a simple and yet haunting bugle call, and always breaks some of us down at a military funeral. There was bound to be a myth about its creation.

The facts behind it are straightforward. It was created during the Peninsular Campaign of the Civil War, in the late spring and early summer of 1862. This was some of the toughest fighting of the war. The Union forces under McClellan had inched their way from Yorktown to the gates of Richmond before Davis made the inspired move of putting Robert E. Lee in charge of the army that stood in McClellan's way. Lee immediately took the offensive, within days driving the Army of the Potomac back to its boats.

During that period, one of the generals under McClellan (Brig. Gen'l Daniel Butterfield) decided that his men could use a "lights out" signal, so he asked his buglar to work up a call. That buglar was Oliver W. Norton. He apparently devised the now-famous melody by revising an older call, with the odd name of Scott Tattoo. It was soon adopted by the rest of the army and, indeed, quickly crossed the lines as Confederate buglars picked up on it. The funereal use was a natural enough extension.

The legend most often told about Taps is somewhat different. It is said that a Union captain named Ellicombe discovered his son dying on the field at the end of a day of battle. He wasn't aware his son had even enlisted. What was more shocking -- his son was wearing grey.

The dying child was musically gifted (he had left his family shortly before the war broke out to study music in Richmond) and there was one final composition in his uniform pocket as he passed away. That was Taps.

Okay, that isn't true. There isn't even any record of the existence of a Captain Ellicombe. But it's a fine story, often tripped out in a variety of further sentimental detail, and it does no harm so long as history and mythology are kept distinct.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.