On Friday, he was just Robert Goodloe Harper IV, college student, fresh from winter exams at the University of Virginia.
One day later, there he was at Mount Vernon, nattily attired in the red and navy blue uniform of the 1st Regiment of Virginia and reenacting--with 300 other costumed mourners--the funeral of George Washington on the 200th anniversary of the historical event.
No detail, no matter how small, was overlooked in trying to recapture the drama and authenticity of the original: Reenactors were schooled in everything from how to wear their hair (mustaches were verboten) to how to speak ("NO 20th Century dialogue," warned a seven-page planning memo).
Just as in 1799, cannons perched on the estate's spacious riverfront lawn fired off a salute to the departed president and were answered by return fire from a schooner anchored in the Potomac. And when the 20-minute funeral procession began to wind its way from the mansion down to the tomb, a young lieutenant helping to carry the bier stumbled and was replaced--just as it happened 200 years ago.
There was even a "body" in the coffin, a mannequin wrapped like a mummy, which lent a certain aura for those mourners who paid their respects inside the mansion before the Masonic rite began.
Shoulders thrown back, eyes squinting in the bright December sun, Harper's regiment--which included his father--led the funeral procession. Accompanied by cannon fire and dirges from a drum and bugle corps, the cortege filed past the 3,000 spectators, some of them curious onlookers, others descendants of the men and women who were at Mount Vernon in 1799 to witness Washington's burial.
Among the mourners in the procession was 55-year-old Zsun-nee Matema, of Silver Spring, a descendant of Washington's personal slave Caroline, who cared for the general at his deathbed. Other slaves, including the two young men who led Washington's riderless horse, were portrayed by reenactors, all part of the effort to precisely mirror the formalities of 200 years ago.
"It's kind of weird," said Harper, 21, who spent Friday night at a Holiday Inn in Old Town Alexandria trying on reproduction Revolutionary War uniforms that his father obtained for the event.
Yesterday's funeral reenactment--the culmination of a year-long series of events at Mount Vernon and across the country commemorating the life and death of its first president--was alternately a genealogical gold mine, a staging point for family reunions and a military trivia swap-fest.
The two-hour event proved a magnet for people deep into the arcana of Revolution-era weaponry: When the three cannons on the lawn shot 21 charges in the direction of the river yesterday, they released clouds of smoke and pent-up aaaahs from adults and children in the crowd.
Amateur and professional historians came in search of factual gems. Waiting behind a rope for the beginning of a narration by Roger Mudd of the History Channel, Tom Krial, a maintenance man at the Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority, grabbed his own bit of history out of a canvas duffel bag: an original, framed letter written by Tobias Lear, Washington's personal secretary, who was in the room when he died and wrote down every detail.
"I hate to be a showoff, but I have this letter from him here," Krial, 36, said to those nearest him as necks craned in his direction.
People reveled in viewing the Washingtons' household objects, including some gathered and displayed at Mount Vernon for the first time in years as part of the bicentennial observance. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the private group that owns the 500-acre estate and hosted yesterday's reenactment, staged a similar event on the 100th anniversary of Washington's burial. VIPs, including President William McKinley, who gave the main address, arrived at the estate 16 miles south of Washington by "electric railway," according to a contemporary account, while the public came by steamboat. The 1899 event, too, was described as an "exact replica," with five of the pallbearers descended from the original coffin-carriers.
Participants in yesterday's re-staging emphasized the historical accuracy of their costumes. Women wore their hair in the late-18th-century style, while men with mustaches shaved them off, mustaches not being common in Washington's time.
After the funeral, the modern-day VIPs, led by Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), and his wife, Roxane, nibbled on period snacks such as pound cake and sugar cookies, washed down with cider.
Some items simply defied historically correct re-creation: the body of the fallen hero, for example.
While the ladies' association went to great lengths to acquire a precise replica of Washington's 600-pound mahogany and oak coffin, the "body" in the mansion before the funeral--and in the cloth-draped box yesterday--was a foam mannequin wrapped in polyester batting, representing the 6-foot-3 1/2-inch Washington.
Washington was 67 when he died Dec. 14, 1799, from complications of a cold he was said to have caught during a wet horseback ride; three physicians diagnosed inflammatory quinsy--a swollen throat. As the nation plunged into mourning, more than 300 mock funerals were held.
Now, 200 years later, he has receded into the shadows. Phil Chase, chief editor of the papers of George Washington at U-Va., said Washington's charisma and intelligence don't come through as well in his writings as those of contemporaries Jefferson and Franklin.
"We're forever being asked to come up with a pithy quote from Washington for people writing books or making speeches. People want a good Washington quote--and there are some, but they're hard to come by."
"Hogwash," responded some people yesterday when asked whether Washington had become dull or irrelevant. "He was an icon . . . admired for his intelligence, integrity and honesty," said Robert Goodloe Harper III, whose ancestor Capt. William Harper commanded the funeral artillery in 1799.
On the lawn yesterday, Jeff Lambert, aka Col. George Deneale, examined his 1st Virginia Regiment. As Deneale, a wartime aide to Washington, Lambert, a 50-year-old accountant, would lead the procession. "I'm the hood ornament," he joked. "If I go the wrong way, everybody does."
Lambert and his men stood comparing their shoe buckles, which had become an obsession for Sue Keeler, supervisor of interpreters at Mount Vernon. It was her idea to use elastic to secure the fake silver adornments after discovering there weren't enough authentic buckled shoes in the usual places--antique shops, Colonial Williamsburg and Hollywood--thanks to a Mel Gibson film, "Patriot," now in production. "They took all the stuff," Keeler lamented.
Yesterday's daytime events were just a warm-up for one family. Members of the Marsteller clan clustered outside, holding signs with their name so that relatives from Seattle and Colorado could find them. Some were meeting each other for the first time. After the funeral, they were headed to Gadsby's Tavern in Alexandria, where Washington was known to quaff an ale or two in his day.
CAPTION: Grieving at the reenactment of George Washington's 1799 funeral are Dee Curlee, in veil; Laura Taylor; Molly Welty; and Catherine Weinraub.
CAPTION: David and Sylvia Fairbanks, of Bethesda, were among the 300 costumed mourners at the reenactment of George Washington's funeral at Mount Vernon.
CAPTION: Emily Willis, 8, of Lavallette, N.J., waits on a back step at Washington's home before joining the funeral procession.
CAPTION: Thomas Lee, center, playing Col. Thomas Blackburn, leads the procession of pallbearers and mourners to the tomb.
CAPTION: A regiment fires its muskets into the air in honor of the first U.S. president.