Kelly Whitson, who works with our Division of Armed Forces History, shares the story of one object that captures the true spirit of Veterans Day.
As a contractor in Collections Documentation Services, sometimes the paperwork that comes with my job can be dry and perfunctory. Other times, though, the paperwork illuminates the fascinating background of an object. In one case, the paperwork told me about the big story of one small object that marked an important moment in world history and provides a lovely example of honoring our veterans.
When Hartley "Hot Lips" Edwards joined the Army in May 1918, he had never played the bugle in his life. A few months after joining the Army, Edwards was off to France to join General Pershing's American Expeditionary Forces, where he would soon become the lead bugle in Pershing's famous drum and bugle corps. In November 1918, in the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, General Pershing ordered Edwards to sound Taps. This command was a bit confusing to Edwards, as normally he only played that sad, soulful tune at funerals and at the end of the day.
Not one to argue, though, Edwards stood next to a railcar in the Forest of Compiègne and did as he was told. Later, Edwards learned that he blew the call that signified the end of the Great War. The day would become known as Armistice Day, a day to celebrate peace, and then, 36 years later, it would become Veterans Day, a day during which Americans celebrate all of our veterans, living and dead.
Edwards played "Taps" under the Arc de Triomphe in a parade in 1919 as part of the first of many Armistice Day celebrations. Afterwards, Marshal Ferdinand Foch invited Edwards and the rest of the bugle corps to return to France to play again someday. That day came 38 years later in 1956, when Edwards and his wife Irene, after saving their whole lives to make the trip, returned to France. Edwards once more played his bugle under the Arc de Triomphe, this time for the centennial of Woodrow Wilson's birth. The French president begged Edwards to leave his bugle in France, but according to Mrs. Edwards, it was always her husband's wish to donate the instrument to the Smithsonian.
On Memorial Day in 1966, Edwards' wish was fulfilled when he formally donated his beloved bugle to the Smithsonian. Edwards passed away in 1978, almost 60 years to the day after his historic sounding of "Taps," but in his words, "Old buglers never die, they just blow away."
Today, the bugle is battered and worn; it has been soldered so many times that it can no longer be taken apart. The bugle has sounded "Taps" in parades and military cemeteries all over the United States. According to Mrs. Edwards, "It has traveled more than twice the distance around the world and is believed to have sounded 'Taps' over the graves of more veterans than most bugles." It has honored veterans in ten different states as well as in Europe. It has been played at General Pershing's grave at Arlington National Cemetery, at George Washington's tomb, at the tomb of Abraham Lincoln, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and, very softly, at Woodrow Wilson's tomb at the National Cathedral.
Edwards is a shining example of a life dedicated to honoring the men and women who have fought for our country. This beaten-up old bugle would be historically significant even if November 11, 1918, had been the only time it ever sounded "Taps," but that it has an even richer and prouder story beyond that makes it the perfect object to remember this Veterans Day.
Kelly Whitson is a contractor in Collections Documentation Services at the National Museum of American History. She works specifically with the Division of Armed Forces Inventory Project.