War never came to Mount Vernon, but the music that once summoned its owner to battle echoed across George Washington's sloping lawns yesterday as 16 fife and drum corps marched in the shadow of his mansion on the Potomac.
For John McGrath and his colleagues, however, it was just another day replaying the songs of history.
"It's an ongoing, continuing tradition," said McGrath, who leads the Alexandria Royal Fyfes and Drums. "Fife and drum groups travel nearly every weekend through the spring, summer and fall months -- and, come to think of it, there are some in the winter too."
Fife and drum corps from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia are gathered at Mount Vernon for the first time this weekend to perform for an expected 15,000 visitors.
The fifers and drummers were a marching history lesson, some costumed in Continental Army uniforms, tricorn hats and 18th-century militia gear. One group sported the uniform of infantry musicians in the Union Army of the War Between the States, another the dress of an 1812 naval officer.
As this succession of colors trooped up the green, the fifes and drums played pieces evoking different eras in American history.
"The Battle Hymn of the Republic," for instance, recalled the bloody days of the Civil War. And when one corps struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner," hundreds of people removed their hats, placed their hands over their hearts, and gazed toward the mansion.
For the several hundred performers, the Mount Vernon festival is another stop on what is a whirlwind, almost year-round tour of weekend concerts, performances and parades.
"This is the busy season right now," said Pat Dillon, 29, a drummer from New York City. "Some corps have two, even three, functions to play every weekend."
Dillon, who makes his living as a business representative, got started in the fife and drum corps through his father.
"I started in grammar school up in the Bronx, if you can believe it," said Dillon. "And I'm second-generation. My father started in the Bronx back in the 1940s."
Joyce and Steve Slutzker, a couple from Greensburg, Pa., said their group, the Commonwealth Ancients, grew out of small-town connections 10 years ago.
"People talk to each other, and one thing leads to another," said Joyce Slutzker. "We're just townspeople who got together." In their corps, members range from children of 5 to people in their late sixties.
Introducing the day's performances, Mount Vernon Resident Director Neil Horstman noted the appropriateness of fifes and drums being played in Washington's back yard.
In 1775, Horstman said, Washington's general orders to his commanding officers recommended that they " 'provide their regiments with good drummers and fifers.' " In 1777, Washington said: " 'Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music. Every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.' "
Mount Vernon itself is providing the music to lure more visitors to the 500-acre estate.
"We don't do things like this very often, and I think we'll be doing more of them to add another dimension to people's visits," said Ann Rauscher, a Mount Vernon spokeswoman. "Our visitation has been down, as it has been at every museum and site in the area this year."
Tourism in Washington was down 17 percent last year at the city's monuments and memorials, and by 4 million visitors at the Smithsonian Institution.
The performances continue today from noon until 4 p.m.