Letter reveals Chautauqua family’s ties to first playing of ‘Taps’

Leah Harrison | Staff Writer

Twelve years before the Chautauqua Institution was founded, a member of what would become one of Chautauqua’s most musically invested families played “Taps” for the first time.

Oliver Willcox Norton, whose grandson was Chautauqua opera patron Paul Norton, served Union General Daniel Butterfield as brigade bugler. When Butterfield revised the “Scott Tattoo” bugle call into what is now known as “Taps,” Norton was the first to play it in July of 1862, replacing the end-of-day signal. Throughout the years, “Taps” evolved into the funeral honors sounded at wreath-laying ceremonies and memorial services for the uniformed dead.

O.W. Norton was mustered into Company G, Erie Regiment on April 21, 1861. After three months of inaction, the regiment disbanded in July. A new regiment formed after the first battle of Bull Run called the Eighty-third Pennsylvania Volunteers. Norton became the bugler for Company K.

In a letter home dated May 24, 1862, Norton recounted his duties as brigade bugler. The letter was written less than two months before Norton was given the music for “Taps.”

“At sunrise buglers at brigade headquarters sound the ‘brigade call’ and the ‘reveille’ (rev-el-lee is the camp pronunciation). The buglers of each regiment as quickly as possible assemble on the color line, give their regimental call and repeat the reveille. The fifes and drums follow and awake the men. This is the signal to rise and fall in for roll call. You may guess that the buglers of an army of 30,000 men all within sound of each other, make some music. At sunset we have another call, ‘The Retreat.’ At half past eight the ‘Tattoo,’ at nine the ‘Extinguish Lights.’ Then there are calls ‘To Strike Tents,’ ‘To Assemble,’ ‘To The Color,’ ‘Sick Call,’ ‘Officers Call,’ etc. It is our duty to repeat all such calls that are first sounded at headquarters. On the march, the order to march, or half, or lie down and rest, etc., in fact, all orders are given by the bugle.”

In an undated letter, Norton gave his account of the birth of “Taps,” now 150 years old:

“One day, soon after the seven days’ battles on the Peninsular, when the Army of the Potomac was lying in camp at Harrison’s Landing, General Daniel Butterfield 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 any 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 taking up through the Army of the Potomac.”

“There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call,” Norton wrote. “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.”

Update: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Oliver Willcox Norton’s name and to correct the relationship to Paul Norton as his grandson, not nephew.