The True Story of "Taps"

     There has been a false story behind Taps that has been floating around for many years. It is a real tear-jerker, the consequence of which makes it very popular. This is the way it goes:

     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 moan of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the field. Not knowing if it was a Union or a 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 reached his own lines, he discovered a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead.

     The captain lit a lantern. Suddenly, he caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier. It was his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, he 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 Confederate army status.

     His wish was partially granted. The captain had asked if he could have a group of Army Band members play a funeral dirge for the son at the funeral. That request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate. Out of respect for the father, they did say that 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 son's uniform.

    The wish was granted. This music was the haunting melody we now know as "Taps" that is used at all military funerals.

Great story, huh?

     Except that is it is complete fabrication. It has the drama, that poignant quality that demands that it be retold over and over, especially on the Internet. Read on.

     Jari Villanueva is one of the finest buglers in the country. He has been a Master Bugler with the Air Force Band as far back as anybody can remember, probably when the wings were made of fabric, and is the Chief Bugler of Vincent's Brigade. This is what Jari has to say about the story:

     I have spent years just on this one tune... The story of Captain Robert Ellicombe and his Confederate son is a myth, a fake, a tall tale, a good story to tell around the old campfire but a story that holds no truth whatsoever. This is one of those stories that is reprinted and forwarded to others and makes its way around the Internet around Memorial Day, July 4th and Veterans Day. The story gets printed in papers, newsletters, and, sad to say, even on some military websites as the true version of how the bugle call of Taps came to light.

     I have sounded the call over 1,600 times over the past 16 years as an Air Force bugler at Arlington National Cemetery. I am the curator of the Taps Exhibit at Arlington and a Civil War reenactor and historian. Along with other history buffs, I have researched the real story and have tried to squash this fake story.

     We know much about the two men involved with the creation of Taps. Gen. Daniel Butterfield and bugler, Pvt. Oliver Wilcox Norton, who created the new call, survived the Civil War, went on to become prosperous and respected businessmen and citizens. Both wrote about their Civil War experiences and of the creation of Taps in July 1862.

     There is no proof that a Captain Robert Ellicombe ever existed. The myth gives no indication of what unit or state he served. In order to be believed, one needs to produce muster, discharge or pension papers and background history of both father and son, units, etc. Lastly, where is the son’s grave? There is no basis at all to the story, except that it occurred near Harrison’s Landing in July 1862, where the true origin took place.

     So where did this myth come from? I have traced this tale to a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not story that Robert Ripley created for his short-lived TV program in 1949. This is chronicled in the book Ripley, The Modern Marco Polo--The Life And Times of the Creator Of Believe It Or Not by Bob Considine, published by Doubleday & Co. in 1961. As Considine wrote: "The denouement of this is a coincidence incredible even by Rip's standards."

     The myth took on a life of its own and was even printed as fact in an Ann Landers or Dear Abby column. A retraction was later printed. It has acquired a renewed life on the Internet and is spread by many unsuspecting but well-meaning people who believe it to be true. It is unfortunate to see it on websites, especially military and veteran sites that should know better. It is hoped that those who are interested in history will spread the word to stop the myth.

Jari Villanueva


Day is done.
Gone the Sun.
From the lake,
From the hills,
From the sky.
All is well.
Safely rest.
God is nigh.

Fading light.
Dims the sight.
And a star,
Gems the sky
Gleaming bright.
From afar,
Drawing nigh,
Falls the night.



For those of you who have a need to play Taps on the fife, here it is:


Above from ------

Below from -------




Memorial Day Home Page
Taps Information

There is a myth about the origin of Taps that is circulating about the Internet. The true story is that in July 1862, after the Seven Days battles at Harrison's Landing (near Richmond), Virginia, the wounded Commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, General Daniel Butterfield reworked, with his bugler Oliver Wilcox Norton, another bugle call, "Scott Tattoo," to create Taps. He thought that the regular call for Lights Out was too formal. Taps was adopted throughout the Army of the Potomac and finally confirmed by orders. Soon other Union units began using Taps, and even a few Confederate units began using it as well. After the war, Taps became an official bugle call. Col. James A. Moss, in his Officer's Manual first published in 1911, gives an account of the initial use of Taps at a military funeral:

"During the Peninsular 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."
More about the true history of Taps can be found at: 24 Notes That Tap Deep Emotions and at Military District of Washington Fact Sheet: Origins of "Taps".

  Words to Taps
(Note: there are no "official" words to Taps
below are the most popular.)

Day is done,
gone the sun,
From the hills,
from the lake,
From the skies.
All is well,
safely rest,
God is nigh.

Go to sleep,
peaceful sleep,
May the soldier
or sailor,
God keep.
On the land
or the deep,
Safe in sleep.

Love, good night,
Must thou go,
When the day,
And the night
Need thee so?
All is well.
Speedeth all
To their rest.

Fades the light;
And afar
Goeth day,
And the stars
Shineth bright,
Fare thee well;
Day has gone,
Night is on.

Thanks and praise,
For our days,
'Neath the sun,
Neath the stars,
'Neath the sky,
As we go,
This we know,
God is nigh.

  Listen to TAPS:

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