A Soldier's Lullaby


America's freedom was won and maintained by its toughest, gruffest citizens--those who would risk everything they had for the country, and what it represents. Yet some of the toughest and gruffest were also some of the most sensitive, and their love as well as their strength is their enduring legacy.

This is the Forgotten History of a Soldier's Lullaby.

John Caldwell Tidball was a man's man; a soldier's soldier; the sort of hardscrabble commander that Lincoln's Union Army was thankful to have. In fact, Lincoln himself personally thanked him for his heroism at the Battle of Gettysburg.

A tough-as-nails veteran who had already been a commissioned officer for 13 years when the Civil War broke out in 1861, Tidball solidified his reputation as a man not to be trifled with when he helped lead the expedition to put down John Brown's revolt at Harper's Ferry two years earlier.

He was "as mean now as he was good when he first took command," one of his soldiers wrote of him. "Everyone hates him from the highest officer to the lowest private. He is the meanest man I ever see."

A battle-hardened old salt, Tidball was a soldier's soldier, with little time for emotion and sentimentality when there were wars to be won.

But in do doing there were men who were lost. And when they were, even the saltiest of old soldiers could get emotional.

In early July, 1862, Tidball was commanding Battery A of the Second U.S. Artillery as they made camp at Berkeley Plantation in Harrison's Landing, Virginia.

A corporal under his command--a "most excellent man," as Tidball described him--passed away, and the old salt was devastated. And he became sentimental. He insisted on burying his friend with full military honors, but he could not conclude the funeral with the customary 21-gun salute.

Confederate forces were camped too close by, and they could mistake the gunfire for an attack and launch a counter-attack of their own. Tidball would have to make do without.

But this wouldn't do. Not for a soldier's funeral. Tidball had an idea.

A new song had been played for the past few evenings signalling to the men at Berkeley Plantation that it was time for lights out: A more melodic arrangement of an old bugle call known as the "Scott Tattoo." This was different, though, and far more popular.

General Daniel Butterfield, like Tidball a soldier's soldier with little time for emotion or sentimentality, had been playing around on his bugle and had come up with a brand new selection: 24 notes that were as emotional and sentimental as any soldier had ever heard.

Tidball thought it was the perfect way to end his friend's funeral service.

"The thought suggested itself to me to sound taps instead, which I did," he later wrote. "The idea was taken up by others, until in a short time it was adopted by the entire army and is now looked upon as the most appropriate and touching part of a military funeral."

By 1891, the song, then known as "Taps," became the standard way to end military funerals and is today, as it was then, the most touching part...made more appropriate because it was written by a soldier's soldier and popularized by a man's man, neither of whom had much time for emotion or sentimentality.

Yet they created perhaps the most emotional song in American history--an ode to soldiers young and old whose day was done. Such sentimentality even inspired Horace Lorenzo Trim to write lyrics to it...lyrics which have been all but lost to history:

Day is done, gone the sun,

From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;

All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

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