Always decide for yourself
June 20, 2003
“Believe only half of what you see,” said Norman Cousins, “and nothing that you hear.”
As noted in a letter to the editor below, the media have been under considerable scrutiny lately for their credibility. In this particular instance, the issue is “Taps” and the story of its origin. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
But first I want to make a point about letters to the editor. I read almost all of them, and I do very little to verify whether the information in them is true.
I don’t know if that surprises you or not, but there is one guiding reason. The letters are a public forum, and for me to decide what is “right” or “wrong” is to put my stamp of approval on the letters published by the Appeal.
I won’t do that. Because as much as I would like to think there is an absolute set of facts to any particular issue, the reality is that there are often conflicting facts. And which you choose to select often depends on your point of view on the subject.
We have raging debates sometimes on the Opinion page, such as the ongoing discussion on the Second Amendment and Americans’ right to bear arms. Letter after letter cites facts, court opinions and history,
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and not many of them agree. That’s why it’s a controversy.
Are we any closer to the truth for reading all those Second Amendment letters? Oh, I think so. People are enlightened, a few are swayed and, ultimately, the fact the debate goes on is a sign of a healthy democracy. (Excuse me, it’s not a democracy. It’s a representative democracy.)
Now, for “Taps.”
I went to the U.S. Army Web site noted by John Sweeney, and here’s what I found:
During the Civil War, in July 1862 when the Army of the Potomac was in camp, Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield summoned Pvt. Oliver Wilcox Norton, his brigade bugler, to his tent. Butterfield, who disliked the colorless “extinguish lights” call then in use, whistled a new tune and asked the bugler to sound it for him.
After repeated trials and changing the time of some notes which were scribbled on the back of an envelope, the call was finally arranged to suit Gen. Butterfield and used for the first time that night.
Pvt. Norton, who on several occasions, had sounded numerous new calls composed by his commander, recalled his experience of the origin of “Taps” years later:
“One day in July 1862 when the Army of the Potomac was in camp at Harrison’s Landing on the James River, Virginia, resting and recruiting from its losses in the seven days of battle before Richmond, Gen. Butterfield summoned the writer to his tent, and whistling some new tune, asked the bugler to sound it for him. This was done, not quite to his satisfaction at first, but after repeated trials, changing the time of some of the notes, which were scribbled on the back of an envelope, the call was finally arranged to suit the general.
“He then ordered that it should be substituted in his brigade for the regulation ‘Taps’ (extinguish lights) which was printed in the Tactics and used by the whole army. This was done for the first time that night. The next day buglers from nearby brigades came over to the camp of Butterfield’s brigade to ask the meaning of this new call. They liked it, and copying the music, returned to their camps, but it was not until some time later, when generals of other commands had heard its melodious notes, that orders were issued, or permission given, to substitute it throughout the Army of the Potomac for the time-honored call which came down from West Point.
Gen. Butterfield, in composing this call and directing that it be used for “Taps” in his brigade, could not have foreseen its popularity and the use for another purpose into which it would grow. Today, whenever a man is buried with military honors anywhere in the United States, the ceremony is concluded by firing three volleys of musketry over the grave, and sounding with the trumpet or bugle “Put out the lights. Go to sleep” … There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call. Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air.”
So that settles that.
Except that on the West Point site, also listed in the letter below, a noted authority on “Taps” named Jari A. Villanueva writes that Gen. Butterfield is unlikely to have scrawled the notes on the back of an envelope because he couldn’t read or write music. So I don’t know if that part of the story is true or not, although it’s repeated in most versions.
Villanueva goes on to report that “other stories of the origin of Taps exist. A popular one is that of a Northern boy who was killed fighting for the South. His father, Robert Ellicombe, a captain in the Union Army, came upon his son’s body on the battlefield and found the notes to ‘Taps’ in a pocket of the dead boy’s Confederate uniform.
” When Union General Daniel Sickles heard the story, he had the notes sounded at the boy’s funeral. There is no evidence to back up the story or the existence of Captain Ellicombe.”
The story of Capt. Ellicombe is the one the previous letter writer had heard. It’s also the exact story someone sent me a couple of months ago.
What have we learned? A lot about “Taps.” But also that it’s always up to you to decide what is truth and what is fiction, and never to let somebody else decide for you.
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