Union College marks 150th anniversary of 'Taps'
By Paul Grondahl | Times Union, Albany, N.Y. | Published: May 18, 2012
ALBANY — It is the solemn 24-note military bugle call that launched a thousand handkerchiefs and became an American musical icon.
"Taps," a national song of remembrance that rarely fails to cause listeners to dab at moist eyes at the end of military funerals and memorial services, turns 150 this year.
Daniel Butterfield, an 1849 Union College graduate from Utica who became a general in the Union Army, created the tune that was first played in July 1862 during the Civil War.
"There's a unique eloquence in its simplicity," said Jari Villanueva, a military bugler from Maryland and author of a booklet on "Taps" who will lecture on its history on Friday and will perform at a free brass concert on Saturday at Union to mark Armed Forces Day as part of class reunion events.
"I consider it an honor to be able to play 'Taps' as a final sign of respect to give our soldiers who sacrificed so much to preserve our freedom," said Steve Weisse of Schenectady, a professional trumpeter who will play with Villanueva and a 15-piece brass band.
Weisse is part of Bugles Across America, a volunteer group that plays "Taps" at military funerals when the military can't provide a horn player. There aren't enough buglers to play "Taps" due to military budget cuts, coupled with large numbers of Korean War and World War II veterans dying.
Weisse joined the group six years ago after a cassette tape version of "Taps" jammed in the player at the funeral for a World War II veteran. "It was horrifying," he said.
Weisse was incensed to find on YouTube bloopers in which faux buglers holding a bugle to their mouths at military funerals pretended to perform "Taps" while a digital device in the horn played a pre-recorded version. The devices fell out or malfunctioned.
Anything other than a live bugler playing "Taps" sets off Villanueva. "The fake bugler is heartbreaking," said Villanueva, director of the Maryland National Guard's honor guard who oversees 80 service members who provide military honors across the state. He's among 7,500 volunteer buglers with Bugles of America and has played "Taps" thousands of times, including at least 5,000 times during 23 years he worked at Arlington National Cemetery.
"Taps" has been special to him since he was a Boy Scout.
"It touches deep emotions in each one of us," Villanueva said. "It has become part of the American experience and our culture. You can recognize it in the first three notes. It is uniquely American."
At Union, Butterfield, son of a prominent businessman who pioneered what would become the American Express Co., did not display particular musical talents.
He focused his studies on the law and graduated at 18. Too young to enter the bar, he spent a year tramping around the country. He returned to Utica, worked for his father, joined a militia and relocated to New York City to work.
Butterfield joined the 12th Regiment of the New York State Militia, which mustered in New York on April 19, 1861, and was assigned to the nation's capital. He was quickly promoted to brigadier general and given command of the Third Brigade of the Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac.
After a thrashing by Confederate troops in the Seven Days battles, the Army of the Potomac retreated to Harrison's Landing, Va., to tend to its battered soldiers and await orders. Generals tried to rally their dispirited troops with whiskey punch and regimental band concerts.
The injured Butterfield, tired of the customary three rifle volleys and a French bugle call at the end of battlefield burials, revised an established military tune used to signal "lights out." He gave his new, 24-note arrangement to his bugler, Oliver W. Norton, of the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers. Norton played it at the end of a funeral for a cannoneer.
The most famous military bugle call of all was born.
Butterfield died on July 17, 1901, at 70 and was buried beside a large monument at West Point.
"Taps" was played.