For British & Commonwealth Forces it is the moving ‘Last Post’ whilst for Germans it is the haunting ‘Ich hatt einen Kameraden’: both tunes guaranteed to stir the souls of veterans especially when played at military ceremonials or periods of official Remembrance.. But what of the American equivalent?
My first experience of the U.S. military’s most revered tune was, as the sole journalist on the Friendly Convoy, standing amidst American graves high on the cliff above D-Day’s ‘Omaha Beach’. Around me, Veterans of the US 79th Infantry Division had gathered at this famous cemetery, (made all the more so by its inclusion in the opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’), to honour comrades who had fallen during the Allied invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe on June 6th 1944.
As those wonderful veterans, widows, friends & family gathered at the foot of the statue for American Youth, the sound of ‘Taps’ was born high on the wind and over the invasion beach as heads lowered and tears welled in this unbelievably beautiful and tranquil resting place for tens of thousands of young GI’s so far from their home-land..!.
It is anybody’s sad guess just how many times this American call-to-arms has been played down the years, in how many far-flung wars and for just how many lost sons of the United States, but where does this simple tune originate from… and how has it become so ingrained in the American military psyche?
The story is actually very simple, but totally heart-rending: it came about in 1862 in the American Civil War when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was marshalling his troops near Harrison’s Landing in the State of Virginia and facing the Confederate Army, who were on the other side of a narrow strip of ‘no-man’s land’.
During one night, Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the battlefield and, not knowing if the soldier was a Union or Confederate, the Captain decided to take his life into his own hands and try to bring the stricken soldier back to his side of the lines for medical attention. Crawling out under enemy gunfire, Captain Ellicombe reached the wounded soldier and began to slowly drag him back, but when he finally succeeded in reaching his own lines, he discovered that not only was the soldier a Confederate, but he was already dead.
With a heavy heart the Captain lit a lantern, then caught his breath and going numb with shock as in the dim light he saw the face of the soldier and recognised that of his own son! It later transpired that his boy had been studying music in the Deep South when the war had broken out, and without telling his father, had joined the Confederate Army..!
The following morning the heartbroken Union officer sought permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial with a Union Army band in attendance, despite his ‘enemy’ status. But the Union High Command refused to grant him the full ceremonial he craved because his boy was a soldier in the Confederate Army, but out of respect for his father, granted him a single musician to mark the burial.
Captain Ellicombe chose a lone bugler and asked that he play from a sheet of musical notes found in his music student son’s uniform pocket… and so the haunting American funeral march that we now know as ‘Taps, was born:
‘Day is done, Gone the sun,
From the Lakes, From the hills, From the sky,
All is well, Safely rest, God is nigh…
Fading light, Dims the sight, And a star gems the sky, Gleaming bright,
From afar, Drawing nigh, Falls the night…
Thanks and praise, For our days, ‘Neath the sun, ‘Neath the stars, ‘Neath the sky,
As we go, This we know, God is nigh….’
Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013