Historians research, write and recount stories that shed light on the lives of everyday people. They engage our imaginations to help us connect emotionally with the past.
Thunderclouds rumble as a spring storm rises over a mountain ridge, blowing droplets of rain on the students and history enthusiasts who gaze over the windswept landscape. Leaning beside a wooden fence, Lord Fairfax Community College Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Center for Civil War History Jonathan Noyalas ’01 talks about the trials and tribulations of the Heater family, whose pre-Civil War stone house still stands in the middle of Cedar Creek battlefield off Route 11 in Middletown, Va. A 2001 graduate of Shenandoah University’s College of Arts & Sciences, Dr. Noyalas frequently leads tours of historic sites to discuss real-life events that took place in nearby fields, roads and backyards.
From the Battle of Cedar Creek to skirmishes up and down the Great Valley Road, the Shenandoah Valley saw much conflict during the Civil War. Standing on a small, grassy knoll just five miles north of Cedar Creek, Noyalas tells his listeners tales of everyday people who lived in the border towns between Winchester and Strasburg, Va. Their experiences illuminate the lives of farmers and townsfolk living along the Great Valley Road, including the uncertainties, decisions and problems they faced trying to survive the turmoil and reclaim their lives and their possessions after the war.
He shares the Heater family’s financial losses, how husband and wife argued bitterly about secession, and how neighbors resented Mrs. Heater, who, unlike her husband, was a Union sympathizer. He describes stalwart local women baking rotten apples into pies and selling them to passing federalist troops, who became so sick, they couldn’t fight. He recounts how one man’s curious attempt to open an unexploded cannon shell with a hammer resulted in his untimely death. He relates the tragic tale of a free black man who jumped headfirst into a well rather than face capture and a life of slavery.
Noyalas purposefully selects the most powerful, passionate and intriguing stories to illustrate historic events. While others may describe history as a recitation of facts, he prefers focusing on the human drama.
“For me, history has always been a way for people to connect with the past,” said Noyalas. “If I had to pick an overall theme, it would be the ‘triumph of the human spirit.’ People often find a way to break through—to find that light at the end of the tunnel. I think you’ll find that throughout the course of history. If you do that, it brings [history] to life.”
Noyalas favors a quote from Robert E. Lee—then president of Washington College (now Washington & Lee University)—who responded to his friend Charles Marshall, a Confederate soldier complaining about the difficulties and problems experienced after the war ended. Lee responded with, “In times of crisis such as these, it is history that causes us to hope.”
“I always use that as a theme in tours and lectures, in seminars and in the classroom,” said Noyalas. “At the end of the day, people are going to forget where troops were located, but they’re not going to forget those very powerful stories, where people pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and lived to fight another day.”