I don’t know of another melody that matches the emotion and reflection that occurs when these simple 24 notes are sounded. I’ve played these notes in school assemblies, in patriotic celebrations, and in funerals, and each time there’s a sobriety and appreciation that I feel as the moment approaches to begin playing.
Not too long ago, I was asked to play these 24 notes at a veteran’s funeral at Quantico National Cemetery. It was a surreal experience as the marines began the military honors with a gun salute. I was positioned 20-30 yards from the funeral in the line of sight of a marine who signaled for me to being playing.
As I waited to play, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to make sure that I played the notes correctly, but I also felt a great sense of appreciation for the man who was being honored and for the thousands of military men and women who were buried nearby.
The 24 notes that I played that day have a rich history that began over 150 years ago.
It was July of 1862. The Civil War had reached a fever pitch as the Union and Confederate troops battled that summer in a Peninsular Campaign in Virginia. As part of the campaign there was a period of seven days that became known as “The Seven Days Battle”. The Union forces had suffered drastic casualties; in fact the total casualties for both sides reached 26,000 before the battle had ended. Union General Daniel Butterfield had stationed his men at Harrison’s Landing in Virginia following the battles and it was here that he called for a bugler to come to his quarters.
The military had a bugle call to signal “Extinguish Lights” and General Butterfield felt the standard call was to formal and he wanted to modify the call as a way to honor the men who were battling bravely. He modified the length, speed, and repetition of the notes and it was on this summer night in 1862 that these new notes sounded for the first time from the General’s quarters. For several days the call was used to signal “lights out” in the camp.
Buglers from surrounding units heard the new tune and immediately began to ask for copies. The music began to be passed around to units throughout the Union Army. In fact, Confederate buglers also began to circulate copies of the tune.
As the Peninsular Campaign of 1862 continued, a member of a Union artillery unit was killed in action and a quick makeshift grave and service was arranged. The leader of that artillery battery was concerned that if they honored their fallen friend with a standard 3 round shot with rifles, it would alert the nearby Confederate soldiers of their position. So he instead substituted the gun salute with the playing of “Extinguish Lights”.
This practice of playing these notes at the funeral service of a soldier began to become standard practice. You and I know these 24 notes not as “Extinguish Lights”, but as “Taps”.
“Taps” is played at every funeral service for veterans and active military when military honors are requested.
I’ve played these notes at funerals and I’ve preached numerous services where this tune has been played, and I’m always overwhelmed by the emotions that surface in me.
I’m proud of our military men and women both past and present who gave of themselves to protect our country’s freedom and liberty.
Jesus shared these words in the Book of John; “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Each man and woman who serves our country could at a moments notice be faced with the reality of giving up his or her life for our freedom.
Let’s be sure to honor our veterans… not just when we hear those 24 notes.
Historical material for this post:
Jari A. Villanueva