This I Have Learned… “Taps”: Its History and Its Power—In Honor of Veterans Day

Mary Jo Bellner Swartzberg

The first time I heard “Taps” was in the movie (watched on TCM) From Here to Eternity, in a scene when pugilist Prewitt (played by Montgomery Clift) held his bugle to his lips and played a mournful bugle sound while crying for the loss of his friend, Angelo Maggio (played by Frank Sinatra). It was not until 2008, at an uncle’s funeral, when I heard it again at the graveside service. In addition to “Taps,” there was a rifle salute for my uncle, who was a decorated World War II veteran. I cried. Everyone at the gravesite cried.

“Taps” evokes different feelings from different people. As an example, for Major Carolyn Munich of the U.S. Army (the daughter of SaddleBrooke residents, Mike and Marcia Munich), “Taps” means: “a moving bugle call that brings to mind the sacrifices our fallen soldiers have made in service to this country.” For SaddleBrooke resident W. Lewis Chatham, Rear Admiral U.S. Navy (Retired), he states, “As beautiful as it is, I have heard it too many times.” Others who have heard it, in various contexts, probably have their own feelings and responses to hearing this iconic bugle piece that elicits sadness.

“Taps,” the unique and mournful sound, which is played at U.S. memorials and funerals, and is also played to mean “lights out” for soldiers at night, dates all the way back to the American Civil War. The original bugle sound was followed by three drum beats, hence the beating or tapping of a drum.

We can thank General Daniel Butterfield for the final rendition of “Taps,” as he was highly dissatisfied with the original bugle “time to hit the hay” sound and believed that the bugle piece should be more melodious.

Butterfield partially wrote the new “Taps,” and he asked his brigade bugler to look at it. The brigade bugler made some changes, then he played it for Butterfield’s men. Buglers who were from other units heard the bugle sound, which became a 24-note piece, and it immediately spread.

The first time the new “Taps” was played for a military funeral was for a Union soldier when his commanding officer thought that “Taps” would be better than the traditional three rifle shots over a soldier’s grave. This was to avoid the rifle volleys being confused with actual combat rifle sounds.

Eventually, lyrics were paired with the bugle music, and the following lyrics have endured:

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.

Jari Villanueva, “Taps” historian and bugle expert, has written that Butterfield’s new bugle sound was officially known as “Extinguish Lights” until 1891 in American military manuals. Since then, the moniker “Taps” has been formally adopted as part of U.S. military funerals.

For a more complete history of “Taps,” go to