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Songs of Yesterday: Civil War, Part 9 - What Did the Privates Do?

The precursor to "Taps" - "Tattoo" - became a tune that was used to carry many sentiments about war experiences. Here we look at a popular song among the veterans of the GAR and their take on being privates in the Civil War Union Army.


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Editor Note: Hear the author perform, What Did the Privates Do?. To order the complete CD, see Songs of the War of the Rebellion.

"Day is done, gone the sun, from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky; All is well, safely rest, God is nigh." I remember singing that every night at Girl Scout camp. I thought that was the name of the song - "Day is Done" - and only years later did I learn that the piece of music (which we had sung à cappella) did not get words until sometime after the tune was composed. Various sets of lyrics have popped up over the years to say in words what the musical notes of "Taps" make clear: the event (life, day, campfire, fighting, etc.) is over (Wikipedia, "Taps").

The military bugler in the camp was responsible for "mass communication." It is true that he (and frequently he was no more than a boy) would toot out the positions and actions the soldiers were to take, in the regiment's code. All unit soldiers were responsible for knowing what the notes meant, while they appeared to be nothing more than sounds to the enemy (Botkin, p. 65). But the bugler's task was also to signal the beginning and ending of the day. "Reveille" got the troops up in the morning, and the playing of "Taps" sounded the end of it all. Since he was also to communicate to the soldiers throughout fighting or drills, one would think the chap never got a chance to rest (Silber, p. 172). But "Taps" was not the first "lights out" music of the military. Its predecessor - "Tattoo" - is really the focus of this article.

"Tattoo" was a British drum roll, but it had a tune. Its purpose was to call an end to the day and it got its name from the Dutch tap-toe, meaning "to turn off the tap." Within the taverns, that drum "tap" signaled the end of service and the time for folks to go home. It is said to have had a military origin as the customers who were the ones expected to "call it a night" were the soldiers; after all, no one wants hung over soldiers guarding the town or in a position of using fire-power (Hendrickson, p. 657). We can see, then, how the successor to the military signal for "day's end" could end up being labeled "Taps": it truly was a shortened version of "Tattoo" (probably easier for the young buglers to master).

As an aside here, "Taps" was allegedly written by General Daniel Butterfield, a Union staff member of General Hooker's (Erbsen, p. 70). With the assistance of his bugler, Lt. Oliver Wilcox Norton, it became a major melody in the lives and deaths of soldiers (Hendrickson, p. 657). Its first sounding was said to have been at Harrison's Landing, along the James River in Virginia (Wright, p. 241), July 1862, and was picked up throughout the armies of both the North and South during the course of the War. The tune's name and tenor were taken from the original "Tattoo," which was deemed too long and formal for a simple "Go to sleep" order (Villanueva).

But "Tattoo" did not vanish from the soldiers' lives. Its length actually made it a good vehicle to carry lyrics dealing with all manner of army life. So it was that, through the years (during and after the War), various songs popped up with the instructions to sing them to the tune of "Tattoo." In an old GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) songster, at least three songs are designed to be carried by that familiar (at the time) tune (which, sadly, has been all but lost to obscurity since "Taps" entered the scene). My personal favorite is "Yes! What Did the Privates Do?"

If your ancestor(s) fought in the Civil War (on either side), it is most likely that they were privates, for there were an abundance of those men who did all the major work to fight the war directed by the officers. While some of us have ancestors who attained a higher rank, it is only a very few who can boast being the descendants of the officers we hear the most about: Grant, McClellan, Lee, Jackson, etc. And many who do boast such associations find, when they investigate, that their alleged hero ancestor had no offspring, had a line that died out, or was otherwise not connected to the hopeful descendant. But that is by no means a reason not to be proud of those forebears who were at the forefront of the battles - they were the ones most likely to die in defense of their cause. And they were also the ones who worked to carry the officers on to fame.

After the War was over and soldiers met to unite in companionship and understanding at the GAR events, a number of songs were introduced (or re-written) to bring to mind some of the less than favorable elements of their experiences. One such song was written by Comrade P. V. Carey (date unknown) and expresses exactly these sentiments:

Who jerked for G., pulled steady haw,* And whacked the army mule,

To haul hardtack and pork and beans, And whiskey as a rule;

Who drove the ambulance along, With off'cer's traps into,

If officers did all of this What did the privates do?

Who forged for the comp'ny cook, To bring in grub to chew;

Who took the top rail from the fence To cook the hardtack stew;**

Who lit the bright camp fire at night, To dry the old flat shoe,

If officers did all of this What did the privates do?

Who held the jobs and got the cash, Of State and Nation too?

Who got the honor of the vote Of those who wore the blue?

Who volunteered as citizens, Their duty well to do,

If officers did all of this, What did the privates do?

The clouds of war have passed away, And plainly left in view

The stars and stripes above the gray, As well as o'er the blue;

Who scatters garlands o'er the graves Of those so brave and true,

If officers will do all this What will the privates do? (Old War Songs, p. 37).

* "gee" and "haw" were the commands given the mules, meaning "right" and "left," respectively (Hendrickson, p. 277).

** "hardtack stew" was one way the soldiers made edible fare of the standard issue delicacy - a cracker of such consistency as to make it virtually inedible unless soaked in something or ground to a powder and then mixed with other things. The men would create a stew by crumbling the food into a pan with anything else that could be found (Norris, p. 19).

If your ancestor was one of those in a private's uniform, just reading the lyrics (even if you don't know the tune of "Tattoo") can give you a sense of what the soldiers had to experience. Theirs was not an easy life, nor was it properly recognized. Soldiers of this rank earned about $13 a month and their receipt of that was not regular (no "direct deposit" back then). However, this song also shows us that our forebears had a sense of humor about their early life experiences. We could all take a lesson from that attitude.

In our instant-gratification society today, could we, or our children, or their children, have handled such experiences? There was no knowing when relief food or clothing might arrive (or if it would), and what they had might have to last for a very long time. Otherwise honest men turned to thievery to survive. Unlike today, there were no legions of psychologists on hand to assist with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but you can bet there were probably more veterans who suffered from that than not. They handled their "issues" with songs and with comrades. And those who had neither (some areas had no GAR posts) had to find their own way through the flash backs and night terrors. They most likely did not discuss these in their visits with family, so we have little to no way of knowing how the experiences affected our ancestor veterans. In whatever branch of the service they served, it is a safe bet that their lives were changed by the experiences and how that was visited on future generations will probably also remain a mystery in our family histories.


Botkin, B. A. (Ed.). A Civil War Treasury of Tales, Legends and Folklore. Lincoln, NE: , Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1960, 2000.

Erbsen, Wayne. Rousing Songs and True Tales of the Civil War. Asheville, NC: Native Ground Books & Music, 1999.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. and Expanded Edition. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Norris, David A. Life During the Civil War. Toronto, ON, CA: Moorshead Magazines, Ltd., 2009.

Old War Songs and G.A.R. and Patriotic Songs (presented to the Grand Army of the Republic, Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 27th, 1889). Selections from Acme Haversack of Song and Patriotic Eloquence.

Silber, Irwin (Ed.). Songs of the Civil War. New York: Dover Publications, 1995.

Villanueva, Jari A. "24 Notes that Tap Deep Emotions." West-Point.Org: The West Point Connection. Accessed 23 September 2011, from

Wikipedia, "Taps," 14 September 2011, accessed 22 September 2011, from

Wright, Mike. What They Didn't Teach You about the Civil War. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1996.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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