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The Story of Taps

Published September 15, 2000
Countries: USA, USA (Civil War)
Age Levels: 9 and up

It all began in 1862 during the Civil War, also known as the War Between the States.  Captain Robert Elicombe of the Union army was with his men near Harrison's Landing in Virginia.  The Confederate troops were not very far away, just on the other side of the narrow strip of land.

During the night Captain Ellicombe heard the moan of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the battlefield.  Not caring whether it was a Union or a Confederate soldier, the captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention.  

Crawling on his stomache through gunfire from both sides, Captain Ellicombe reachrd the wounded soldier and began pulling him towards his own encampment.  When the captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead.

The captain lit a a lanterm.  Suddenly, he caught his breath and went numb with shock.   In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier.  It was his son!

The boy had been studying music in the south when the war broke out.  Without telling his father, he enlisted in the cause of the Confederate Army.

The following morning, the heartbroken father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial, despite his enemy status.  His request was partially granted.  The captain had asked if he could have an army band play a funeral dirge for his son at the funeral.  That request was turned down since his son was a Confederate.

Out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him one musician.  The captain chose a bugler.  He asked him to play a series of notes that he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of his dead son's uniform.

This music was the haunting melody we now know as "Taps" - the tune that is played at all military funerals.

These are the words to "Taps."

"Day is done,
Gone the sun,
From the lakes,
From the hills,
From the sky.
All is well."

Now, dry your eyes!


That story was circulated for many years and taken by many people as true.  However,  If such a person existed, military records do not show it.  According to Military records from the Civil War, there was NO Captain Robert Ellicombe in the Union Army.  Yet this story has been widely told all around the world and has been believed by many to be the true story of taps.


The story does have a few truths in it.  "Taps" was first played in 1862 at a funeral near Harrison's landing.  Further, we know that many fathers wept over the death of their sons in this war.  Brother fought against brother and father against sun during this time when our country was divided.


Credit for the music is given by many people to Brigadear General Daniel Butterfield, who had the music played to extinguish lights at bedtime.


The story about the actual playing of Taps at a funeral is "said to be the following:


Tidball's Battery A  of the Second Artillery was in an advanced position.  They were a close distance to the enemy and fighting from a concealed position.  A young man from the unit had been killed in action, and his friends were trying to bury him with military honors.


It was customary to have a group of men fire a volley over the grave of a fallen soldier in a salute to honor him.  The burial detail fired their first rifles and, "Bam!"  Enemy guns opened up on the Union soldiers, causing them to leave the graveside and hurry to cover.


Some of the men offered curse words at the enemy and went back to tell their commander that it had hapened again.  The shots at the graveside were taken by the enemy as the sign of an attack, and they returned fire with fire.


There had to be some way to bury a man with honor and not get shot at while you do it!  That's when Captain Tidball suggested playing "Taps" over the grave.  The soldier was buried with honor, and the enemy did not fire at the living as they tried to bury the dead.


Before long, the Southerners copied the bugle call.  You could hear the sad notes of "Taps" being played by both the North and the South.  "Taps" became the official song for milirary funerals at the end of the Civil War when North and South were united.



There were Civil War soldiers who talked about two brothers who fought in that war, one for the North and one for the South.  They say both brothers played the bugle.  According to the story, the brothers found out they were both in the same area.  While, as enemies, they could not meet and talk to each other, they could let each other know they were alive and well with their bugle music. 

Some soldiers say that one night, the brother from the North played the first few notes of "Taps" and paused briefly.  The exact same notes were played by his brother who fought for the South.  Every piece of the song was echoed by the brother.  Both could sleep peacefully, knowing that the other was alive and well.   

Then came the night that one brother played the opening notes of the song.  A good musician can always tell when someone different is playing an instrument.  Someone other than his brother was playing the echo.  Then as the first brother played the last prase of the music, there was no echo from the other side.  The soldiers of both sides knew that one brother had died. 

This version of "Taps" is called "Echo Taps."  It is still played at some funerals today.


If you wish to learn more stories from the Civil War, contact Dr. Mike Lockett by emailing  Also, contact Dr. Lockett about providing a Civil War program for your school or group.