History of the Bugle Calls

The Importance of Bugle Calls

Every morning at 0630 and every evening at 1700 (5 p.m.), Soldiers, Family Members, and civilian employees can see, hear, and participate in a ritual that honors our nation, while continuing a tradition as old as the U.S. Army. Cars stop, work pauses, and games cease, while honors to the colors are rendered. While many people think of old western movies and cavalrymen when they hear a bugle call, few Soldiers even understand the significance of most of the bugle calls heard throughout the day.

History and Traditions

When George Washington first assumed command of the Continental Army in 1775, drums and bugles were already a fixture of military life and operations. In a time before radios and texting, there was simply no other way for a commander to communicate his orders amidst the din of firing muskets, clashing sabers, and booming cannon. Yet drums and bugles were also useful in camp. For instance, work parties far from camp gathering forage for the horses–even a small army required several tons of feed a day–knew to return to camp when they heard the call for “Recall.” As the U.S. Army developed, it standardized the use of these bugle calls for a disciplined lifestyle.

Life at a Frontier Outpost

In the frontier outposts of the late 1800s, bugle calls united Soldiers and their Families. These small, lonely forts with garrisons of only one hundred Soldiers or less were often far from the nearest town. In these communities, the bugle calls were as much a part of the lives of the Family Members as the Soldiers. Household clocks were set by the bugle calls; one Army wife even used “Assembly” as the signal for the children to take their afternoon nap!

Days began early for Soldiers as they began feeding and grooming the horses before dawn. Following “Reveille” and breakfast, Soldiers came together for inspection when they heard the call for “Assembly.” The Soldier with the best uniform and equipment was selected to be the commander’s orderly, which gave them bragging rights and (sometimes) the following day off. After inspection, the Soldiers trained in critical skills of the day: marching, riding, bayonet drill, marksmanship, and gun crew drills. “Mess Call” to lunch ended the morning’s training. Soldiers spent most of the afternoon in fatigue details, such as chopping wood, maintaining the buildings and stables, and, as always, taking care of the horses. Soldiers returned from these tasks when the bugler sounded “Recall,” giving the Soldiers time to prepare themselves for the evening parade and “Retreat.” The day at most frontier outposts ended with a parade of the entire command around the central field. This was, of course, a way to inspect the discipline and equipment of the unit, but it was also a community social event that was attended by nearly all of the Family Members. Prior to the 1890s, Soldiers were required to assemble for a final roll call at 2200 at the sound of “Tattoo,” but this practice–along with inspections on Sunday–ended when the Army made efforts to improve the quality of Soldiers’ lives.

The Army has changed greatly since those frontier days, but the pride and sense of community associated with bugle calls remained. After returning from nearly two years in a German prisoner of war camp, a World War II Soldier remembered, “It wasn’t until I heard Retreat sound that I knew I was home.”

Purpose of Bugle Calls

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First Call
Sounded as a warning for Soldiers to begin assembling for a formation.

Signals the Soldiers to Stand-To for morning roll call and accompanies the raising of the National Colors.

Signals that the present period of physical training, duties, or drill is over.

Mess Call
Signals breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Sounded to call in a group of Soldiers or scouts. It is also sometimes referred to as “Fall in”.

Officer’s Call
Signals all officers to assemble at a designated place.

Signals the end of the official duty day.

To The Colors
This call used to render honors to the nation when no band is available or in ceremonies requiring honors to the nation more than once. It requires the same courtesies as the National Anthem. It is used to accompany lowering or casing the National Colors.

Call To Quarters
Symbolically signals all Soldiers to their quarters for the night.

Signals that all lights in squad rooms be extinguished and that all loud talking and other disturbances be discontinued within 15 minutes.

Signals that unauthorized lights are to be extinguished. This is the last call of the day.

Chapel Call 
Signals religious services are about to begin.

Visit http://www.music.army.mil/music/buglecalls/to hear what these calls sound like!

A special thank you to the U.S. Army War College for this great information!

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History of the Bugle Calls