In the early months of the Civil War, the signal for soldiers to prepare for the final roll call of the day, and lights-out, was known as “Scott’s Tattoo,” a bugled melody named for General Winfield Scott, and in use since the 1830s. Union Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, commanding officer of the 3d Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac, found his unit bivouacked along the James River following the Seven Days’ Battle. He thought that Scott’s Tattoo was too harsh, and “not as smooth, melodious, and musical as it should be [for that hour of the evening].” In July 1862 while still encamped, he summoned one of his buglers, an Oliver Willcox Norton, and asked him to rewrite the piece more to his liking. Norton, only 23, nervously told the general that he couldn’t read music, and only played by ear. Undeterred, Butterfield insisted that he experiment with changes, and Norton tweaked the notes while his boss listened.
Norton later recounted,
“After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call in place of the regulation call. The music was beautiful on that still summer night, and was heard far beyond the limits of our brigade. The next day I was visited by several buglers from neighboring brigades, asking for copies of the music.”
The call is officially known as “Butterfield’s Lullaby,” and it quickly spread throughout the Union Army, crossed enemy lines, and was adopted by Southern forces as well, being published in the CSA Mounted Artillery Drill Manual within months. But its lasting legacy commenced near Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, in 1863, when a corporal of Battery A, 2d U.S. Artillery, was killed by skirmishers, and his company prepared to bury him with the traditional three-volley salute. The senior officer present, Captain J.C. Tidball, feared that an outburst of musketry at close quarters might spark further fighting. He then recalled Butterfield’s Lullaby, and asked his own bugler to play the soothing tune at graveside in lieu of more shooting; this proved to be the first recorded instance of the music being used in this setting. Witnesses said the score was a poignant addition to the service, and its use at funerals spread informally throughout the army thereafter.
Despite widespread application, and long after Southern adoption, Butterfield’s Lullaby was not included in the U.S. Army Infantry Drill Regulations until 1891. It remains in use to this day.
And unknown to most, it has lyrics, albeit unofficial:
“Fading light dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar drawing nigh – Falls the night.
“Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
“Then good night, peaceful night,
Till the light of the dawn shineth bright,
God is near, do not fear – Friend, good night.”
You know the twenty-four notes as Taps.
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