First Taps – August 1862

During the end of July 1862 General Daniel Butterfield—a Brigade Commander in Morrell’s Division, Porter’s Corps, Army of the Potomac—lay in a hot, fly filled, tent at Harrison’s Landing, recovering from a wound he had received at the Battle of Gaine’s Mill. He was an officer of varied interests and passions. One of which was the composition of bugle calls. Although, he could not read, nor write music, he was able to sound calls on the bugle. He believed that an understanding of the composition, as well as the use, of bugle calls was ‘a necessary part of military knowledge and instruction for an officer commanding a regiment or brigade.’ He had learnt to play while a Colonel of an infantry regimental, and had gone on to compose a call for his Brigade to introduce any call that was for the direction of that unit.

While Butterfield lay on his sick-bed he fell prey to melancholy. Every night he listened to Taps, blown as prescribed in Casey’s manual. He thought the call ‘did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be.’ After much consideration he called in someone who could write music and, he later remembered, ‘practised a change in the call of Taps until I had it to suit my ear.’ He then sent for his Headquarters’ Bugler, Oliver W. Norton. He showed Norton some notes, ‘written in pencil on the back of an envelope’ and asked him to sound them on his bugle. The musician did so several times, playing the notes as written. Butterfield then ‘changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody.’ Satisfied with the new version the General ordered the Bugler to sound it for Taps, in place of the regulation call.

Norton always remembered the first night he officially played Butterfield’s Taps. ‘The music was beautiful on that still summer night, and was heard beyond the limits of our Brigade.’ The next day he was inundated with requests from fellow buglers for copies of the music. There was no general order issued to authorise the new Taps, but each unit commander used his own discretion to adopt it; and it was gradually taken up by the whole of the Army of the Potomac.

At about 12.30 a.m. on August 1st the Confederates brought a few light batteries to Coggin’s Point and the Cole’s House, on the right bank of the James River, directly opposite Harrison’s Landing; opening a heavy fire on the Union shipping and encampments. It was continued rapidly for half an hour, until the Rebel’s guns were driven back by the fire of the Union batteries. ‘No harm of the slightest consequence [was] done to the shipping, although several were struck,’ wrote Gen. McClellan. However, the fire directed toward the Army’s encampment had more devastating effect. Total Union causalities were 10 men dead and 15 wounded. 

The next day McClellan sent a party across the river to destroy the Cole’s House, and cut down the timber that had helped to mask the Rebel batteries.

Battery A, Second U. S. Artillery had one man killed and two wounded during the Confederate attach. The fatality suffered by the company was a corporal, and according to his commander, John Tidball, ‘a most excellent man and soldier.’

‘I was desirous of burying him with full military honors. I was, however, refused permission to fire three guns over his grave, and the thought suggested itself to me to sound Taps instead, which I did. The idea was taken up by others and soon became the custom.’

As John H. Calef , (another officer that served with company A) noted many years later,‘[This] impressive custom has since been observed at all military funerals, at the conclusion of the [burial] ceremony.’

It has always been assumed that the version of Taps played over the grave of the dead corporal was Butterfield’s. But, due to the close proximity of the date of composition and the funeral, this is by no means certain. The first time Taps was used in an American military funeral, it may have been the version found in Casey’s manual. What is without doubt is that Battery A was the first military unit to “just play Taps,” as ordered by its commander, John Tidball.

N.B. As the date of the artilleryman’s death, his rank and his military unit are known; it should be possible to discover his name, and perhaps his service history. If anyone is willing and able to look into this for me at the National Archives in Washington D.C. please contact me.

SPECIAL NOTICE: Over the next few weeks I will be migrating all the existing information about Battery A from this site to one decated to the subject. See Battery A 2nd US Artillery link in Blogroll.


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My father commanded the 1st Battalion/2nd Field Artillery Regiment in Baumholder Germany in the mid seventies. At his change of command he received a plaque from his officers that had a full size bugle with a brass plate that stated ” The First Unit To Sound Taps”. Thought it might help. He also had two fine Lt’s…future Gens D. Valcourt and G. Miller.

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  • Light Company A, 2nd U.S. Artillery

    If anyone has any information about the Civil War service of Light Company A, Second U.S. Artillery, please contact me via this site. I am particularly interested in individual members of the battery - officers, non-commissioned officers or privates. SPECIAL NOTICE: Over the next few weeks I will be migrating all the existing information about Battery A from this site to one decated to the subject. See Battery A 2nd US Artillery link in Blogroll below.
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