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The Real Origin of Taps

The myth going around is nice, but not true.

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Harrison's Landing, VA

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Taps Originates with the French (or Scots)

Harrison's Landing, VA

B-4690 Gen. Daniel Butterfield.
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This morning I received a touching story about how Robert Ellicombe, who was a Union man, found his dead son (a Confederate) on the battlefield near Harrison's Landing on the James River in Virginia in 1862. Robert supposedly requested a full military burial for his son and was denied all but a single bugler. He apparently had the bugler play the notes written on a piece of paper he found in his son's uniform, and that became what we know as Taps. With my natural curiosity, access to Footnote, and Google, I set about to see what I could find regarding the Ellicombe family.

It turns out they didn't exist - at least not on a battlefield in Virginia in 1862. Nothing was found on any Ellicombe in Footnote records, and a Google search turned up the fascinating information that this story is a myth!

As in most myths, there is some truth. Taps (originally Lights Out or Extinguish Lights) was an infantry call borrowed from the French (or a Scottish tattoo, depending on what you read). In July 1862, at Harrison's Landing, General Daniel Adams Butterfield, with the help of the brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, adapted the music for his brigade - the Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac. It was soon picked up by units of both sides. It was made an official bugle call after the Civil War.

Daniel Adams Butterfield was born in 1831 in Utica, NY, and died 1901. He is buried at West Point, although he never attended the Military Academy. You can see a photo taken of him by Mathew B. Brady during the War by clicking on the images to the right. There is also a newspaper article about him.

Oliver Willcox Norton was born in 1839, also in New York, and died in 1920 in Chicago. Before the Civil War, he was a teacher. He enlisted as a private in Co. K, 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry in 1861, and was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the 8th U.S. Colored Regiment. You can see his name listed as Quarter Master in the 8th U.S. Colored Regiment Field and Staff Officers Muster Roll at http://www.pa-roots.com/~pacw/usct/8thusct/8thusctofficers.html. After the war he became a banker in New York City, then moved to Chicago and eventually became one of the founders of the American Can Company.

In order for a myth to be factual history, one needs to be able to prove that the people in question actually existed at the place and time where they were supposed to be. There is no evidence that the Ellicombe father and son ever enlisted in the Union or Confederate armies. No details are given as to their rank, or military units. We don't know where they lived or what state they enlisted in. An online search of the 1860 census shows no Ellicombe families at all, nor any derivation of the surname of Robert Ellicombe. There are no muster, discharge or pension papers for either of them - in fact, we don't even know the "son's" given name! What makes it believable is that the event happened at an actual place and at the correct time. The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey puts it, is pure fabrication.

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