"Taps" is perhaps the most famous musical piece related to the military. For anyone who has been to a funeral where military honors are given or for anyone whose seen a movie with a funeral scene, knows the significance of the song. It is a bitter sweet tune that can cover a wide range of emotions. You may feel a sense of lose, reverence, closure, etc, but one thing that hardly crosses your mind is where that song actually came from. The story of "Taps" has a sad origin that may be even more of a tearjerker than the notes themselves.
Like most pieces of modern Americana, "Taps" finds its origins from the Civil War. The Battle of Malvern Hill took place in Henrico County, Virginia in July of 1862. It was in the ending days of the Peninsula Campaign, and as we all know that was chalked up as a W in the Unions favor. But it was during this battle that the story of "Taps" was born. Now, it is worth noting that the origin of "Taps" is still somewhat debated, however this is the most interesting origin of the tune and "Taps" was not made the official song of military funerals until 1891, about 30 years after the Battle of Malvern Hill was over.
The Civil War is best described as a war amongst brothers, both in literal and figurative meaning. However, it did not end with siblings, it also pitted fathers against sons as well. That is were the Ellicombe family comes into the picture. According to legend, Captain Robert Ellicombe was a Union Captain and partook at the Battle of Malvern Hill. After the smoke had cleared from the battle, Ellicombe and his men were sent on a scouting mission. During this mission, the Captain and his men stumbled across some of the deceased Confederate troops. In respect for the fallen, Ellicombe ordered that the men properly buried. While burying the fallen, a young man was discovered and to the horror of Captain Ellicombe, it was his son. The real shock of it all was that Captain Ellicombe had not spoken to his son since the outbreak of the war, as his son was, for some reason, studying music at a southern university. Prior to the war, the two spoke frequently and there was no sign of the son joining the army, let alone the Confederates. Now being his son, Ellicombe searched his son's pockets for his personal items in order to return them home to his wife with the horrible news of their son's death.
As Captain Ellicombe looked through his songs last possessions, he found mixed in a piece a scape paper with some music notes written scribbled down. The bereaved Captain then requested his companies bugler to play the tune at his son's burial, which he obliged too. The music then in some way made its way to Captain Ellicombe's commanding officer, General Daniel Butterfield. Now, Butterfield is also one to get credited for the creation of the song. He then had his bugler, Oliver Morton, fine tune the song and prepared to be taught to the entire company. The simple, yet mellisonant, tune was then passed to all the buglers within the company. It would eventually grow from a tune played during the Civil War to last sign of respect paid to soldiers around the world. But why does the Ellicombe Family fall by History's wayside?
The Ellicombe Family disappeared from History for perhaps a few reasons. First, there are no records of either of the Ellicombe men fighting in the war. Second, and hopefully not, General Butterfield stole the song and took the credit for himself. Third, perhaps since the young Ellicombe died in battle, the Ellicombe name was never passed on, ending the family name and its future significance in relation to the song. Yet, there is a fourth reason and its that the origin is still disputed between the Ellicombe, Butterfield and the John Tiball version. The Tiball version goes, he wrote the tune to replace the three gun salute. Regardless of which version you wish to believe, it is the song which is the most important. "Taps" today signifies a last sign of respect that the nation can give a fallen solider. Its simplistic, uncomplicated and somber tone can bring to tears to the coldest of men (and women). It is the last tone not simply from a brass instrument but from the service and work done by the fallen. It is a sobering arrangement symbolizing a soldier's work is finally done and can now rest at ease since he (or she) has fulfilled their duty to their nation. In a way "Taps" is our National Monument to the sacrifice of our troops from the founding of our nation, to today and beyond.