The bugle call was composed by Brigadier General Butterfield, who commanded the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, during the American Civil War. Butterfield wrote the tune at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, in July 1862 to replace the customary firing of three rifle volleys at the end of burials during battle. Taps also replaced "Tatoo", the French bugle call to signal "lights out." Butterfield's bugler, Oliver W. Norton of Chicago, Illinois, was the first to sound the new call. Within months, "Taps" was used by both Union and Confederate forces.
Taps concludes nearly 15 military funerals conducted with honors each weekday at the Arlington National Cemetery, as well as hundreds of others around the country. The tune is also played at many memorial services in Arlington's Memorial Amphitheater and at gravesites throughout the cemetery.
Taps is sounded during each of the 2,500 military wreath ceremonies conducted at the Tomb of the Unknowns every year, including the ones held on Memorial Day. The ceremonies are viewed by many people, including veterans, school groups, and foreign officials. Taps is also played nightly at 10 PM in military installations to indicate that it is "lights out". When Taps is played, it is customary to salute (if you are in uniform) or to place your hand over your heart (if you aren't).
Much of this article is taken from a public domain article by Kathryn Shenkle, a historian with Arlington National Cemetery.