A Musical Historical First

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012-2013, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

What do the following historical figures have in common: Ferdinand Magellan, Roger Bannister, Yuri Gagarin, and Louise Brown? The answer is that each one earned a place in history primarily by being the first person to do something: Magellan for leading the first circumnavigation of the Earth, Bannister for running the first sub-four-minute mile, Gagarin for being the first human to go into outer space, and Brown for being the first person born through in vitro fertilization. Not that these people did nothing else of consequence, but their place in history really came from being the first person to do something.

Oliver Norton

The same is true for Oliver W. Norton, whose historic first is associated with the bugle call “Taps.” The first time that this haunting, wistful melody emanated from a bugle, it was Oliver Norton who was on the business end of the instrument.

The bugle call “Taps” is attributed to Union Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield. Butterfield felt that the army’s official call to extinguish lights was too formal. This call, known as “Tattoo,” had been adopted from the French army and was Napoleon’s favorite bugle call. Norton described the origin of “Taps” in an 1898 letter to a magazine which had published an erroneous identification of its composer.

Daniel Butterfield

Norton wrote in his letter, “During the early part of the Civil War I was bugler at the Headquarters of Butterfield’s Brigade….Up to July, 1862, the Infantry call for Taps was that set down in Casey’s Tactics, which…was borrowed from the French. One day, soon after the seven days battles on the Peninsula, when the Army of the Potomac was lying in camp at Harrison’s Landing, General Daniel Butterfield, then commanding our Brigade, sent for me, and showing me some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, asked me to sound them on my bugle. I did this several times, playing the music as written. He changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me. After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call for Taps thereafter 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 which I gladly furnished. I think no general order was issued from army headquarters authorizing the substitution of this for the regulation call, but as each brigade commander exercised his own discretion in such minor matters, the call was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac. I have been told that it was carried to the Western Armies by the 11th and 12th Corps, when they went to Chattanooga in the fall of 1863, and rapidly made its way through those armies.” “Taps” also came to be used by quite a few Confederate units and gained official recognition by the U.S. Army in 1874.

John Tidball

“Taps” was first used at a military funeral during the Peninsula Campaign after a member of an Army of the Potomac artillery unit was killed. It was customary at military burials to fire a three-shot volley to honor the dead soldier. But the artillery unit, Battery A, 2nd Regiment of Artillery, was in an advanced position, and the commander of the unit, John Tidball, was concerned that firing the volley would provoke enemy fire on his position. In place of the volley, Tidball ordered the playing of “Taps,” and this practice spread throughout the army. “Taps” was made standard at military funerals in 1891, and, fittingly, it was played at the 1901 funeral of Daniel Butterfield.

Oliver Norton came to be Butterfield’s bugler after he enlisted in 1861 and became a member of the 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment. Norton was the bugler of his regiment and later was appointed bugler of the brigade. He was not a Pennsylvanian by birth, but was born in Angelica, New York in 1839. The oldest of 13 children, Norton was well educated and was working as a teacher when the Civil War began. His 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment became part of a brigade that eventually included the 20th Maine of Little Round Top fame. Daniel Butterfield was in command of this brigade from its formation through the Battle of Antietam. It was this brigade, commanded at the Battle of Gettysburg by Strong Vincent, that was hustled up Little Round Top in response to Gouverneur K. Warren’s timely warning. In fact, Norton’s 1913 book, The Attack and Defense of Little Round Top, is considered one of the most accurate accounts of that fight.

One of the factories of Oliver Norton’s post-Civil War company
Oliver Norton, later in life

After Gettysburg, Norton received a commission as a first lieutenant in the 8th U.S. Colored Regiment. He remained in this unit until his discharge on November 10, 1865. He maintained his connection to the army as a member of the Grand Army of the Republic and by attending reunions. In 1870 he married Lucy Fanning, with the presiding minister Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The couple moved to Chicago, where they had five children. Norton and his business associates formed a company that produced tin cans and sheet metal products, which seems appropriate for someone whose military career was closely connected to a piece of metal. Norton died on October 1, 1920, and his wife Lucy died in 1933. No monument to Oliver Norton exists anywhere.

From now on when you hear “Taps,” remember that Oliver Norton was the first person to play that plaintive melody. By all accounts, Norton was a good man who lived an honorable life. Nevertheless, Norton’s life was by no means historic, and if he had not been the bugler of Daniel Butterfield’s brigade, and if his brigade commander had not been the person who composed “Taps,” Norton would be just one more good man who lived an honorable life who never ascended into the annals of history. There is an axiom of history that in order to make history, you don’t necessarily need to be the best; you just need to be the first. Another axiom of history is that sometimes making history is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Oliver W. Norton is historic proof of both of those axioms.