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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Reichley: More light shed on origin of Taps bugle call

  • A recent column was about a little article in the November American Legion Magazine that raised more questions in readers' minds than it gave answers to.
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  • A recent column was about a little article in the November American Legion Magazine that raised more questions in readers' minds than it gave answers to. I'm relieved to say that another, much longer article in the same magazine gave an answer to a question that has been debated for 150 years.
    We are in the second year of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which it seems no one cares much about as we are hard pressed to find articles or see anything about it on TV. Some things that are still with us today began during the Civil War.
    One was the authorization of our highest award for bravery in combat, the Medal of Honor. Another was the introduction of one of the most famous pieces of music in history, which is the subject of today's column. Thanks, American Legion Magazine.
    The piece of music is not a song as it has only 24 notes in it, and is recognized by almost everyone, particularly veterans, after the third note. The ongoing debate these past 150 years is just who began it.
    The four-page article is by Jari Villanueva, identified as the nation's foremost authority on military bugle calls. The article is about the origin of Taps, which Villanueva learned to play as a Boy Scout bugler, then went on to spend 23 years with the U.S. Air Force Band in Washington. I guess bandsmen don't move around much.
    Although most who've delved into the origin of the most recognizable bugle call in bugle call history, and the only one still used today except in Western movies, there has been controversy for 150 years about who first used it. Everyone agrees it was first used in 1862, which makes this the sesquicentennial for Taps also, but as recently as earlier this year I read a magazine article that said it was begun by a Union Army captain who found the musical notes on a piece of paper in a dead Confederate soldier's pocket.
    I'd not heard that version before, and did not believe it. My sources had attributed it to Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield. In the current article the expert, Villanueva concurs with that theory. But he muddies the water somewhat by saying that prior to Butterfield's rendition to other generals, one in 1835, the other in 1861, had revised Army manuals and had bugle calls in them to play at the end of a soldier's long day.
    He went on to say that both versions were much longer than Tap's 24 notes, so Butterfield did not copy previous works. And he mentioned the story of the dead Confederate, saying that version had been attributed to Robert Ripley and his famous "Believe it Or Not" drawings that appeared in many newspapers prior to WW II.
    The four pages had much more information about Taps, including the fact it is the only bugle call to have a monument erected to it. This was done by the American Legion in 1969, the 50th anniversary of the Legion's founding in Paris after WW I, and is in Virginia near now gone Fort Monroe, on a site where Butterfield's tent was pitched during the 1862 campaign in which he introduced the only enduring bugle call.
    Page 2 of 2 - I learned much more about Taps than I'll probably ever need to know, and will file the magazine where hopefully I can retrieve it should I ever need to refresh my memory. I save a lot of articles and stuff, but retrieving what I need when I need it is another matter.
    A final piece of trivia: Taps is played about 20 times a day at Arlington National Cemetery, and is thought to be the most performed piece of music in America, played every day by professional and amateur musicians in every corner of this great land. Since this is a month to honor veterans, this is a pretty timely column.
    John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.
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