This I Have Learned: Taps—Its History and Power, in Honor of Veterans Day

Mary Jo Bellner Swartzberg

The first time I heard Taps was in the movie 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 WWII veteran. I cried. Everyone at the gravesite cried.

Taps evokes different feelings from different people. As an example, for U.S. Army Major Carolyn Munich (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 Rear Admiral U.S. Navy (Retired) W. Lewis Chatham, 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 that 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 Civil War 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, 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