Peaceful Transitions Into A Land Of Rest
Funerals for Veterans of the United States Military, by law and more than a century of custom, must include a playing of the famous end-of-day bugle call Taps. The peaceful nature of this restful song is as fitting for a veteran’s funeral as it is for a camp call to rest. It brings to mind comforting images of a child’s bedtime prayers aimed at assuring a peaceful voyage into the land of rest. As one U.S. veteran describes it, Taps “strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air.”
Since this song is so special in the hearts of all military personnel and is a standard part of every veteran’s funeral, it is probably important to consider some interesting facts about the song and the Civil War Union General who is credited with writing it.
Taps is said to have been written in Hampton, Virginia in 1862 as the dust was settling in the famous Seven Days Battle. Union General Dan Butterfield having lost 600 men in the battle and being severely wounded himself was in no mood to hear a traditional end-of-day bugle call after the battle. He told his battalion’s bugler that the standard song — a French tune known in France as “Tattoo” but simply called “Lights Out” by American soldiers was much too formal to accompany the horrific scenes that his company had just experienced. He wanted to hear a song that would be peaceful and comforting, something that would help restore confidence — and faith — to his troops. Butterfield scribbled a few notes on a hand-drawn musical staff, and worked with his bugler for an entire afternoon until the sound was exactly as he intended. He named the song Taps and told his bugler to play the song each night henceforth.
Butterfield’s men immediately fell in love with the new song, and word of it quickly spread to other brigades. Soon buglers throughout the Union Army began playing the song, not only each night, but also at funerals for Civil War veterans. The song replaced a customary three-rifle volley that was conducted at funerals and, eventually, even Confederate troops began adopting the song in their nightly camp routines. This last fact ties the song to a hope of reconciliation between even the worst of enemies, and that makes Taps especially appropriate for funerals for veterans.
One very interesting note about Taps is Butterfield’s own reputation among his fellow Union Army leaders. Butterfield was not, by any means, a military scholar, having volunteered for the Union Army after a career as a hard-nosed, practically-minded-but-fun-loving businessman. He did not mix well, then, with many of the thoughtful, strategic, daresay, proper, military minds who were his peers. He preferred the company of the Army’s more, well, playful leaders, most notably John Lee Hooker, whose last name is now synonymous with “prostitute” because of his legendary taste for alcohol, woman and other questionable pursuits. Butterfield, Hooker, and a handful of their proteges broke with what is traditional and proper in almost all other aspects of his leadership. Therefore, it is ironic, then, that Taps would become such a traditional part of military life, particularly funerals for veterans.
However, a careful look at how the song became such a tradition is in order: See, Taps came to be so important from the bottom-up, not vice versa. In other words, it was the Union Army’s soldiers, not its leaders who selected it as their nightly song. In fact, it replaced a song that had been chosen by the Army’s prim, proper, “military” types.
So that is what makes it a perfect tribute to all veterans at their funerals.
Taps is a song born, not of “blue-bloods” but of “red-bloods,” the men of America’s military who live hard and fight strong. The red-blood spirit is what continues to make today’s military as strong as it is, and for that reason alone, will long be a perfectly fitting part of funerals for veterans.