“Taps,” Bugles and Military Memorials

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E. P. Griffith, photographer, 1918. Mariners’ Museum Archive Number MS0228-01-0976

Have you ever wondered how the bugle call “Taps” came to be used at memorial services for military personnel? As we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, I thought it would be fitting to explore how this practice began.

In an earlier blog post, I presented the history of “Taps” and discussed evidence that points to the fact that the crew of USS Monitor heard “Taps” being played at some point during July or August of 1862. This post is a continuation of the history of “Taps” and how it became a part of military funerals and memorials.

John C. Tidball served as Captain of Battery A, Second U.S. Artillery during the Seven Days’ Battles, June 25 through July 1, 1862. Battery A moved to Harrison’s Landing with the rest of the Union forces after the battle of Malvern Hill.

While at Harrison’s Landing, one of the men under his command died. Captain Tidball described him as “a most excellent man.” (1) He wished to bury him with full military honors but was refused permission for the customary firing of three guns over his grave.

Captain Tidball chose to have “Taps” played instead of the three-gun salute. This was the first time “Taps” was played at a military funeral. He said, “The idea was taken up by others, until in a short time it was adopted by the entire army and is now looked upon as the most appropriate and touching part of a military funeral.” (2)

The playing of “Taps” became standard for military funerals in 1891, although I think it is safe to say that it had been played unofficially for many years prior to 1891. John Tidball died on May 15, 1906. He was the last surviving member of his West Point class of 1848. He was laid to rest with the sounding of “Taps” just as it had been played forty- four years earlier at Harrison’s Landing.

Some of you may have seen this stained-glass window in the Chapel of the Centurion at Fort Monroe. It depicts the playing of “Taps” in 1862. It is a beautiful window, but the first time I saw it I could not understand why it was there. Fort Monroe seems a long way from Harrison’s Landing. I discovered that John Tidball became Commander of the Artillery School at Fort Monroe in 1883 and served there until 1889. The Chapel had been completed in 1858, but several stained-glass windows were designed as part of the centennial celebration in 1958. The commemoration of the playing of “Taps” was one of them.

John Tidball’s daughter, Mabel Tidball, was invited to the centennial celebration in 1958. At the age 83 and living in Charleston, S.C., she was unable to attend the celebration, but requested that “Taps” be performed to remember those who had died in the past 100 years.

In 2013, the United States Congress designated “Taps” as the national “Song of Remembrance,” under Public Law 112-239, Section 596.   Read more

“Taps” and the Crew of USS Monitor

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Bugle from Viscaya 1935.1191.000001

Did the crew of USS Monitor hear “Taps” when it was played for the very first time?

I will attempt to answer this question, but you may be wondering why I asked it in the first place. It all started with a bugle and a memorial service for my father. I will come back to the memorial service in a moment, but first let me show you the bugle that drew my attention.

This bugle from the Spanish Cruiser Vizcaya is on display in our Defending the Seas gallery. Vizcaya was sunk in 1898 during the Battle of Santiago, Cuba in the Spanish-American War. The bugle was recovered from the wreckage.

What was a bugle doing in a maritime museum, I asked? To some of you it may be obvious, but I had a lot of learning to do. Please come along with me on my journey from this bugle and my father’s memorial service to the bulge call we know as “Taps” and the crew of USS Monitor.

Bugle calls are musical signals that announce scheduled and certain non-scheduled events. They were also used in battle. We often associate bugle calls with the Army, but bugle calls were used on nineteenth century warships. The call below is found in the records of USS North Carolina and USS Columbus from 1825.

Commodore’s Dinner Call

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