A Civil War Story
The Origins of “Taps”
More than a century has passed since
the Civil War traumatized our nation and left scars that required many generations to heal.
It was a war that divided not only the nation, but states, cities, villages, neighborhoods, and households.
Some 680,000 Americans died in that conflict-more than in all other U.S. wars combined, from the Revolution
through Desert Storm. That total does not even include the many civilian casualties. Some communities
lost most of their adult male populations, because it was not unusual for a company from a particular
locale to be effectively wiped out by a single volley or cannon bombardment.
From out of that horrific war came many stories of inspiration, but
few to equal the saga of Captain Robert Ellicombe of the Union Army. The Civil War frequently pitted
kinsman against kinsman, but Ellicombe’s story illustrates the ultimate tragedy of that circumstance.
During the Union’s Peninsula Campaign in the summer of 1862, in
the aftermath of a battle near Harriman’s Landing. Captain Ellicombe and his men came upon the
bodies of several dead Confederate soldiers. The captain ordered his men to prepare the bodies for
As graves were being dug, Ellicombe inspected the corpses and was horrified
to discover that one of the bodies was that of his son.
The boy had been studying music at a school in the South when the war
began. Communication between them had been cut off but Ellicombe was confident his son was safe since
the boy was supposed to be far removed from the fighting. The captain was devastated to discover in
so brutal a way that his son had left school and joined the Confederate Army.
When the boy’s personal items were handed to Ellicombe, among
them he found a folded scrap of paper. Carefully drawn on it were several bars of music.
Captain Ellicombe went to his commanding officer and asked if he might
be permitted to bury his son with full military honors behind Union lines. When permission was granted, he sought out the
company bugler and showed him the notes on the paper. Ellicombe asked him if it would be possible
to play the notes at his son’s service. It was simple composition and the bugler assured him he
could play it.
At the conclusion of the services for young Ellicombe, the low haunting
sounds of the melody from the bugle sent chills down the spines of those present as it drifted across the countryside.
The following day Division Commander, General Dan Butterfield, summoned
his bugler, Oliver Morton, to his headquarters. He handed Morton a piece of paper and asked him to arrange the notes on it
for a new bugle call. It is not known whether Butterfield heard the music at young Ellicombe’s funeral and inquired
about it, or if Captain Ellicombe simply gave it to him.
Morton arranged the new call and began playing it for Butterfield’s
troops. It was a beautiful melody, but so simple in its composition that other buglers easily picked it up and played it for
their units. By the end of the war, the call was being played throughout the Union Army. It is called “Taps.”