Generals Barlow, Hancock, Birney and Gibbon, in the field, near Cold Harbor, Virginia, 1864.
Library of Congress
When the contending armies left the North Anna battlefield on May 27, 1864, they moved closer to Richmond. After crossing the Pamunkey River at two locations about five miles northeast of here, the Union army pushed forward on May 29 to the banks of Totopotomoy Creek. It found the Confederate army entrenched on the southern side of the creek, blocking the direct route to Richmond. Over the course of four days the opposing sides skirmished, probed and maneuvered for position.
Francis Barlow's division of the Second Corps arrived here on May 29. The men found Sarah Shelton and most of her children--ranging in age from 14 to 35--at the house and determined to stay there. Union signalmen climbed onto the roof to direct their artillery. Incoming Confederate fire hit the house at least fifty times, but the Sheltons stayed in their basement. Barlow's men eventually built strong earthen entrenchments just west and south of the house. They brought in field cannon and even a few mortars. For a time Major General Winfield S. Hancock, commander of the Second Corps, made his headquarters beneath the eastern porch of the house.