WASHINGTON (Army News Service, May 21, 2009) -- A military custom older than the United States itself is carried out each Wednesday evening through July 1 at the site of the old Washington Barracks, now Fort Lesley J. McNair, in Washington, D.C.

The precision drill, music and ceremony of Twilight Tattoo kicked off this year's season May 13. The ceremony presents the history of the Army and growth of the nation in pageant.

"We celebrate the American Soldier, and this year especially, the noncommissioned officer, 'the backbone of the Army,'" Military District of Washington Command Sgt. Maj. Raymond Houston said at the Wednesday tattoo.

This year's first Twilight Tattoo was actually scheduled for May 6, but was canceled due to rain. Large audiences - perhaps in the range of 3,000 - were drawn to the next two Wednesday evening performances.

The Army will celebrate its birthday with a performance of Twilight Tattoo on the much smaller Whipple Field at Fort Myer, Va., June 17, already at capacity with invited guests, but any other Wednesday evening from now until July 1 will see the colorful pageant presented on Fort McNair.

The entertainment begins about a half hour before the 7:15 start time. Songs of the day are performed by the Army Band's Downrange and Army Blues musicians. It is nonmilitary pop music the troops might enjoy, much like the infantry of yore enjoyed the minstrels and tavern songs.

Those who are familiar with Twilight Tattoo know that the custom of the evening parade stems from the call to quarters for English troops quartered in walled towns of the Dutch low countries during the troubled wars of the 17th century. Musicians would traverse the towns with the call to "doe den tap toe!" Shut off the taps.

As early as 1688, when the Grand Alliance between the Dutch Republic and the English became the Glorious Revolution that saw the Protector, William III, Prince of Orange, overthrow the Catholic king of England, James II, drummers were expected to "beat all manner of beats, as a Call, a Troupe, a March, a Retreit, a Tato, and a Revally."

When the troops were no longer quartered wherever lodging could be found (one of the irritants that sparked the American Revolution), and forts and barracks were stood up, the evening parades were adapted to the new venues. The "military band of music" might be a professional organization, paid for through an officer's mess, or come from within the ranks, reflecting the importance of music to the drilling of infantry and transmission of orders in the chaos of battle.

All of this is reflected in the tattoo at Fort McNair, particularly, of course, in the two participating units that hearken directly to the Revolutionary War and the birth of the American Army - the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps and the Commander-in-Chief's Guard.

The Continental Army learned the importance of drill from Gen. George Washington and a Prussian officer schooled during the Seven Years' War but out of work and looking for employment when he met Benjamin Franklin in Paris in 1777.

Frederick William Baron von Steuben joined the American cause at Valley Forge in February of 1778 and began drilling a select company of 100 men. The company became an inspiration to the rest of the army, and the system of drill von Steuben had committed to paper (in French) was instrumental in fashioning by that spring and summer a greatly more effective force.

So successful was the system in instilling order and discipline within the army that Congress ordered von Steuben's drill manual, commonly called "The Blue Book," observed as regulation by all troops of the United States.

The 153-page booklet stood as the Army's official manual until 1812, prescribing uniform, weapons, marching formations, inspections, conduct of the army in camp and during maneuvers, even down to where and when the drummers might practice, since their beats mandated specific actions, such as "The Tattoo is for the Soldiers to repair to their tents, where they must remain till reveille beating next morning."

Set against the backdrop of Roosevelt Hall, the McKim, Meade and White 1907 colonial revival structure that houses the National War College, Twilight Tattoo makes explicit and implicit the contributions of discipline, drill, education and character in the development and success of the United States Army.

For current performance information, visit www.twilight.mdw.army.mil.

(Tom Mani writes for JFHQ-NCR Public Affairs.)