Fact check: The tune for taps was not found in a Confederate soldier's pocket by his Union father
By DOUG STANGLIN | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 14, 2020
The claim: Taps was found scribbled on a piece of paper in the pocket of a dead Confederate soldier found on the battlefield by his father, a Union captain
A touching story about the Civil War, a Union officer and his Confederate soldier son has circulated for years, claiming to explain the origin of taps, the distinctive bugle melody played at U.S. military funerals and memorials and as a lights-out signal to soldiers at night.
Facebook user Jim Singletary posted the story on May 2 in what appears to be a post-and-pass-along version.
The story involves a Union officer father, identified as Capt. Robert Ellison, who discovers the body of a Confederate soldier one night on the battlefield in Virginia. According to the tale, the body turns out to be that of his dead son who had gone to the South to study music but never told the family he had joined the Southern army.
Even more astounding, according to the story, the father — identified variously as Capt. Ellison, Elli or Ellicombe — finds in his son's pocket a piece of paper bearing a series of musical notes that form the haunting melody we now know as taps.
Although the military does allow the son to be buried on the Union side, so the story goes, they will not allow the Army band to play the funeral dirge because the boy had been a Confederate soldier. Instead, he is permitted only a lone musician, a bugler who grants the father's request to play the notes found on the paper, and taps is born.
But, there is no evidence to support the story, which has surfaced over the years, most recently in social media.
The origin of taps
Jari Villanueva, who was a bugler at Arlington National Cemetery as a member of the U.S. Air Force Band, has written extensively about taps and worked on and researched a three-year exhibit at the ArlingtonCemetery called: "Day is Done ... The History of Bugle Calls in The United States With Particular Attention To Taps."
Villlanueva tells USA TODAY that the father-son story first appeared in a 1949 television program for a short-lived "Ripley's Believe it or Not" program. The origin of the tale is recounted in a 1961 book about the notorious Ripley called " Ripley: The Modern Day Marco Polo," by Bob Considine.
Considine says of the soap opera nature of the tale, "The denouement of this is a coincidence incredible even by Rip's standards."
According to Vanity Fair, Ripley collapsed while recording the taps program and died several days later.
Villanueva says the tale was often passed along in the 1960s in mimeographed copies — the social media of the era — and apparently in a Dear Abby or Ann Landers column.
According to Villaneuva, historians have traced the true origin of taps to a Union officer, Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield, who was unhappy with the lights-out call used at the time during the Civil War, feeling it was too formal for day's end.
He turned to a brigade bugler, Oliver Wilcox Norton, to play an improvised arrangement of an official bugle call known as Scott Tattoo. That music had been set down in Silas Casey's "Infantry Tactics," which notes various music used to direct troops, and had, in turn, been borrowed from the French.
Villanueva also discusses the topic in an NPR interview that is part of a YouTube post that includes a snippet of the original tune that Butterfield revised.
The revised tune, according to historians, was first played at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, following the Seven Days' Battles in 1862. The fighting was part of the Peninsular Campaign.
One of the first accounts of the origins of taps surfaced in an article in the 1898 issue of The Century magazine, in which a music historian, Gustav Kobbe, credits Butterfield with writing the tune outright.
The article prompted a letter from Norton, the former bugler, who said Butterfield asked him to revise the earlier tune — now known as Scott Tattoo — to shorten some notes and lengthen others, while retaining the melody.
"After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call for Taps thereafter in place of the regulation call," Norton said in a letter to the magazine. "The music was beautiful on that still summer night, and was heard far beyond the limits of our Brigade. The next day I was visited by several buglers from neighboring Brigades, asking for copies of the music which I gladly furnished. I think no general order was issued from army headquarters authorizing the substitution of this for the regulation call, but as each brigade commander exercised his own discretion in such minor matters, the call was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac."
At Norton's urging, the editors contacted Butterfield, who in large part confirmed the bugler's story, although he did not specifically recall Norton: "The call of Taps did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be, and I called in some one who could write music, and practiced a change in the call of Taps until I had it suit my ear, and then, as Norton writes, got it to my taste without being able to write music or knowing the technical name of any note, but, simply by ear, arranged it as Norton describes. I did not recall him in connection with it, but his story is substantially correct."
A lengthy article on the topic by Russell H. Booth was published in 1977 in Civil War Times Illustrated that quotes extensively from the 1898 article in The Century. The article credits Butterfield for his role in shaping the tune, but is aimed largely at making it clear Butterfield did not write the tune.
"For the sake of historical accuracy, then let us give General Butterfield credit for having revised a portion of an earlier bugle call into a much better call," Booth writes. "But let us not continue to say that he composed an entirely new call. It makes a good story but it is just not true. The earlier call was in print and in use long before Butterfield ever joined the army."
Taps story resurfaces regularly
Villanueva spent 23 years in the Air Force Band in Washington, D.C., where he often played taps at Arlington National Cemetery and served as trumpeter, bugler, assistant drum major, staff arranger and music copyist.
He said he has spent considerable time debunking the father-son story, which he says surfaces regularly.
"There is no evidence to back up the story or the existence of Captain Ellison," Villaneuva says. "If I had a nickel ... " he says of his many efforts to set the record straight.
Noting the variations in the spelling of the father's name, Villanueva says he may have inadvertently contributed to the Ellison version by inadvertently referring to Ellicombe as Ellison in an article debunking the tale.
Villaneuva says the tune that Butterfield revised can be found in three manuals: the Winfield Scott (1786-1866) manual of 1835, the Samuel Cooper (1798-1876) manual of 1836 and the William Gilham (1819?-1872) manual of 1861.
The call referred to as the Scott Tattoo was in use from 1835-60, according to Villaneuva. A second version of Tattoo came into use just before the Civil War and was in use throughout the war, replacing the Scott Tattoo.
Villanueva says the Tattoo was a general bugle call used to notify soldiers to assemble for the final roll call of the day.
Our rating: False
We rate the claim about the dead Confederate soldier, his Union father and the origin of taps as FALSE because it is not supported by our research. There is no evidence tracing the tune to a battlefield encounter between a Union officer and his dead Confederate son. At least one biographer says the tale was concocted by Robert Ripley, of "Ripley's Believe it or Not," for a 1949 television program.
Our fact-check sources:
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