Have you ever wondered why you hear a bugle playing taps every evening on Army bases around the world? Playing taps is a tradition going back to the Civil War when the tune was first heard at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, in July 1862. The inspiration of Maj. Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield, who adapted 24 notes from the longer score of an earlier Army drill manual, the short plaintive air became so popular that both sides of the conflict adopted it. Today, taps is well known for its frequent playing at memorial ceremonies, but its original purpose was to signal to Soldiers to “extinguish lights,” whether wax- or gas-powered. In other words, get to bed. Now, of course, we say “lights out.” Actually, “extinguish lights” was an early alternate name for taps, which is one of three basic tunes commonly heard on an Army base. The others are reveille and retreat. Reveille begins the duty day while retreat marks day’s end.
But what’s with the bugle? Armies have used loud sound devices for thousands of years to coordinate the movement of troops and sometimes to invoke fear in an enemy. One imagines Scottish warriors charging into battle with their Great Highland bagpipes. Practically, if you think about it, before mechanical clocks, even the most mundane activities of military life were hard to regulate. How do you rouse Soldiers from bed or assemble them en masse at prescribed times? Pocket watches weren’t affordable for most Soldiers until the late 19th century. Thus, communicating a commander’s orders either during the noise and confusion of battle or across a large encampment was nearly impossible without some type of sound device. Drums and fifes (a small pipe) were used by the British in colonial times and were inherited by the Continental Army. These instruments, however, were most suited for European-style set-piece battles and proved unwieldy for frontier fighting against the French and their American Indian allies. Chaotic skirmishes and counter insurgency-like operations led the British to adopt a more convenient device to issue clear sharp sounds – the reliable unkeyed bugle, which was already used in hunting. Played easily by a mounted trooper, the U.S. Cavalry adopted the same instrument, which saw widespread use during innumerable, if often tragic campaigns against native peoples throughout the 19th century. With drill and practice, Soldiers learned the meaning of the various tunes and to respond accordingly. The device became closely associated with Army use and its image was often used to create unit insignia.
During the early 20th century, Soldiers in garrison would have heard bugle calls played by a musician directly into a large acoustic megaphone emplaced near the main flagpole or parade ground. In the 21st century, the tradition of playing bugle calls on military bases has readily survived, but many posts now use recorded versions broadcast through a PA system. When reveille or retreat is heard, it also means that the national flag is being raised or lowered. If outdoors, by long-standing tradition, all military personnel and civilians should face the ﬂag (or the sound of the music). Uniformed members should stand at attention and salute while civilians should place their right hand over their heart. Drivers in vehicles during reveille or retreat should safely pull to the side of the road and stop. Typically, gates will be closed during this ceremony.
Despite its advantages in sounding orders, the bugle and even its more sophisticated cousin, the trumpet, had musical limitations. Thus, military bands remained popular around the world for live performances and morale boosting activities of all sorts. Until World War II, the U.S. Cavalry even maintained several mounted bands, deployed strictly for use in parades and other public events. Today, the bugle call is no longer needed to communicate a commander’s orders in battle. However, the tradition of using bugle calls is deeply engrained in Army culture. It remains a distinctive practice, like uniforms and drill, that separates military from civilian life.
Incidentally, taps and other bugle calls are not capitalized in this article because U.S. Army public affairs follows "The Associated Press Stylebook," which does not capitalize them. Many disagree, but the idea is that bugle calls, as signals, are meant to convey information and thus are not truly songs or compositions.
To hear the U.S. Army Band, Pershing’s Own, play taps, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bfe4TxvUOiw