SU receives funding for Civil War battlefield exhibition

Jonathan Noyalas, director of the McCormick Civil War Institute, stands on the grounds where the Battle of Cool Spring was fought in 1864. Max Lee/Daily

Cool Spring Lodge is in a tranquil setting, at the base of Blue Ridge Mountain by the Shenandoah River. Just over 150 years ago, it was a far different sight — the location of the bloodiest Civil War battle in Clarke County.

“People really didn’t understand that this isn’t just a beautiful place, it’s a sacred place,” said Jonathan Noyalas, the director of the McCormick Civil War Institute at Shenandoah University.

Shenandoah University has plans to make people more aware of this history. The university, which owns the Cool Spring battlefield and lodge, has received funding from the Community Foundation of the Northern Shenandoah Valley, a tax-exempt endowment set up by Robert Boxley Jr., to create an exhibition about the battle.

There is a small exhibition space at the Cool Spring Lodge, consisting largely of bullets excavated by Brother James Summers. But Noyalas hopes to see the exhibit become more focused on the stories of the war, rather than just the objects.

“It’s going to tell the story about the men who were involved,” Noyalas said.

The Battle of Cool Spring, Noyalas said, was a small turning point for the Civil War. The Confederacy won the battle, but it occurred just before the Union started to take more control of the Shenandoah Valley region.

“It’s essentially the Confederate swan song of the valley,” he said.

For Noyalas, however, the more important story is the effects of war — the lives lost and forever changed. To that end, he said the new exhibit, when completed, will tell the story of Capt. Mylan Prat, who died at the Battle of Cool Spring at age 22.

“Here you have a guy who had his whole life ahead of him,” Noyalas said.

That life was cut short. His wife, Noyalas said, later filed for a pension and struggled to stay financially afloat.

Prat’s story, Noyalas said, shows the impact that this battle had on the lives of a family, even years after the event took place. It also shows the importance of recording every battle, and not just more central ones like the Battle of Gettysburg.

“To the families that had people that were killed in battle, that battle is the biggest battle of the war,” Noyalas said.

In addition to telling the stories of people who fought at the Battle of Cool Spring, Noyalas wants to have interactive components of the exhibition aimed at children. That may consist of laying out Civil War clothing so kids can dress as a Civil War soldier.

There will also be 19th-century games set out for children to play.

Noyalas will be hiring two students, Shelby Shrader and Zachary Thompson, to do some research and write text for the exhibition. Shrader will be tasked with researching 19th-century games.

The updated exhibition and things like the interactive games are part of a broader effort Noyalas has made to provide an understanding of the history of the Battle of Cool Spring. In addition to the exhibition, Noyalas has also created a guide for a two-mile tour of the Battle of Cool Spring, modeled after National Parks Services guides of Civil War battlefields.

There is also an ongoing effort to create a cultural landscape study of the battlefield site, where historians will use historic maps, aerial photographs from the 1930s and archival letters to determine what the land looked like during the Battle of Cool Spring.

The battlefield used to be a golf course, Noyalas said. By the lodge, there is a U.S. flag from a World War II battleship, he said. Elsewhere, there are bunkers from the golf course.

“Certainly, you know, it didn’t look like this (in 1864),” Noyalas said.

The cultural landscape study will be funded by a $52,000 grant from the National Parks Service.

Noyalas said that he would like to have the exhibition done by July 15, when the Civil War Institute at Shenandoah University will hold the 153rd anniversary celebration of the Battle of Cool Spring. Realistically, however, he expects only some of the exhibition to be done by then.