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Capturing Herndon's History

Resident converts his passion into local history books.

On the morning of March 17, 1863, Captain John Mosby rode with his band of Confederate rangers down the main thoroughfare into a small settlement that was then known only for the name of its post office – the village of Herndon.

Dressed in the blue uniforms of Union Soldiers of the U.S. Civil War, Mosby and his men see 25 Union soldiers of the Vermont Cavalry near a saw mill. He commands his men to make their move, capturing all of the soldiers without bloodshed.

Walking up a slight hill on a sun parched day 143 years later towards that same thoroughfare, now known as Elden Street is Charles Mauro, a local historian wearing dark-colored sunglasses and a light weight, button down shirt. Back then, Fairfax County was used as a strategic point so that the south could force the north to keep a number of soldiers in the area around the capital to guard their resources and the land around the capital.

"He [Mosby] comes riding up here in the blue Union uniform, and he sees four more Union officers up the road over here," said Mauro, pointing towards one of the historic building in downtown Herndon as he describes the event that was part of a larger campaign of cat-and-mouse tactics between the north and the south just miles from the northern capital. "The stories after that are conflicting … but all four of them were eventually captured."

"He let them go a day later … but during the Civil War, this was our big ‘to-do,’ there were picket lines set up all over this area," Mauro said, pointing down Elden Street as middle-aged men ride past on bikes, and a man and woman push a stroller slowly down the now-paved thoroughfare.

CHARLES MAURO WASN’T always an historian.

He studied management information systems in college, has done computer programming work and works for the FAA in Washington, D.C. as a manager of planning. One of his biggest passions aside from history has been running marathons, which he does on a regular basis.

When he settled in unincorporated Herndon behind Frying Pan Park with his wife and two daughters in 1991, it was a high school project by his oldest daughter that initially formed the spark that would ignite his passion to tell the story of one of the the longest-populated regions in the United States.

"One of my daughters had to read a lot of books on the Civil War, and when she was done, I started reading them," Mauro said as he sat in the train-depot-turned-museum that sits on the corner of Elden and Lynn Street. "I started reading them, and I remembered seeing the sign for the Battle of Chantilly right near our house."

Mauro decided he wanted to find out just who had been in the area during this time.

"I wanted to see where all the troops were at around my house," Mauro said. "And it turned out ... [Confederate Major General] JEB Stuart rode right past my house."

After learning of his geographical relation to one of the largest names in the Civil War, Mauro was hooked. After conducting his initial research, he began to work on what would eventually be his first experience with historical documentation: an eight-year journey that would eventually culminate in the publication of his first book, entitled "The Battle of Chantilly."

It would be the first in what would eventually be a series of three historical books in total, including one that documents the history of the town of Herndon in photographs. Last year, Mauro wrote the screenplay for a "docu-drama" version of his book about the Battle of Chantilly and had it produced with his film investment partner, Bert Morgan.

"Chuck’s passion for the town is wonderful," said Carol Bruce, president of the Herndon Historical Society who took over after Mauro resigned as president of the historical society last year after holding the position since 2001. "His contribution in making the town a special place … and the way he has brought [the town’s history] to the forefront of people’s attention is excellent."

He has just recently finished a manuscript for a new book that outlines the lives of the civilians and their relationships with soldiers in Fairfax County during the Civil War.

"Everybody and their brother has done battle books about the Civil War," said Mauro, describing why he was interested in writing about the citizens of Fairfax County during the war. "I’m more interested in civilizations and what it was like for the common citizens of a society living here during the war."

RESEARCHING AND WRITING the history of a region like Fairfax County hasn’t always been the easiest of forays, and Mauro admits that during his research and writing that he has made some mistakes and has sent historical inaccuracies to be published — although the majority of which have since been corrected.

"You have to wear your Sherlock Holmes hat in that you’ve got to be a detective," he said. "But you’ve got to also be able to write and you’ve to be able to take photos to add to the story."

"It’s not as if I’m writing fiction here," Mauro said. "It’s got to be factual and it’s got to be correct."

Mauro admits that his quest to obtain and organize all of these facts hasn’t always been the easiest thing for his marriage.

"It takes an awful lot of my time," Mauro said, pointing out that his wife of 29 years, Nancy Mauro, hasn’t always been the happiest of people with his hobby. "She’s an historian’s widow, if you want to call her that."

"I stay out of the basement, that’s one thing that I do," said Nancy Mauro with a laugh, referring to the stacks of documents and newspapers that her husband keeps throughout their basement. She added that while she was the one to study history in college, it’s now her husband with the passion for telling the stories of the past.

"It makes me proud that he pursued an interest and that he brought it to fruition," she added. "A lot of people will say, ‘I want to build a house,’ or ‘I want to knit a sweater,’ but to do something and actually follow through with that is not always easy … [Charles] has always followed his projects through till the end."

"THE THING ABOUT history is that you’ve got to be interested, and you can’t just sit in your house, you have to get out and do the research and get things done," Mauro said. "When I look back on some of this stuff, I have to think, ‘how in the heck did I do all that?’"

"People always say to me, ‘I could never write a book,’" he added. "If you’re interested in something and you want to do it, you can do it."

"From an author’s viewpoint, it’s about finding the stuff hat not many people know about … that makes it interesting and exciting," he said. "It [history] never stops, that’s one of the difficult things is figuring out when does it stop."

"People like to look back, far back, but they don’t always understand that history is happening everyday."

In his second book published in 2004 entitled "Herndon: A Town and its History," Mauro took the added step of describing what life was like in Herndon in 2000, so that future historians like himself could have a quick and easy reference point to understand about life in Herndon at the dawn of the 21st century.

"You ever notice nostalgia with songs on the radio? I’ve realized you really only get that feeling after about 20 years," he added. "The year 2000 isn’t that old yet … and it still hasn’t played out."

SITTING IN the Herndon train depot, Mauro tells the story of the local Confederate sympathizer Laura Ratcliffe to 8-year-old Sarah Schuster who, with her mother, came to Herndon to hear about the history of the town last Saturday afternoon.

"I like learning about [history] and reading about it," Sarah, a little girl with skinned knees and a denim overall-style dress, said in almost a whisper. "It’s fun to see what the houses looked like and how the people lived."

When asked if she would like to someday know as much about the history of the area as Mauro she nods with a wide smile on her face.

"Well, that’s good, you can write a book too," Mauro said as he smiles at Sarah. "That’s all you need is to be interested."