The historic Shelton House at Rural Plains lies at the heart of the Totopotomoy Creek battlefield, where Union and Confederate armies clashed from May 29 to June 1, 1864, prior to the Battle of Cold Harbor. (Read more about the battle.)
Today, Rural Plains is part of Richmond National Battlefield Park and is open to visitors. This is a painting that appears on a park sign in front of the house. It depicts the likely appearance of the house at the time of the battle, along with activities that took place in and around the structure on May 30, 1864, which are described briefly below.
Union Army Activity Around the House
The troops here belonged to Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow's division of the 2nd Corps. Barlow operated in this vicinity from May 29 to June 1. On several occasions, men from his division attacked across Totopotomoy Creek. General Barlow is seen beneath the elm tree, in conversation with a battery officer.
Cannon behind house
Federal cannon and mortars set up firing positions immediately west of the house. They operated from behind lunettes—half-moon-shaped piles of dirt and logs that offered some protection. The guns visible here represent Battery A, 1st Rhode Island Artillery. The mortars would be out of sight immediately west of the house.
Injured Men on Porch Steps
The house, porch, and yard served as a temporary aid station for wounded Union soldiers. It was too dangerous a place to be a regular field hospital, but injured men received temporary care here. Young Walter Shelton spent the battle in the basement, and remembered that, "The front yard at times was covered with dead and wounded. Also many in the back yard." Walter turned 15 years old the day the Union army left the farm.
Confederate Artillery Fire
Roof Damage from Confederate Artillery
On May 30, a total of 51 separate Confederate artillery shells struck the building. Many punched holes in the roof. Damage remains visible today in the interior rafters of the attic.
Also on May 30, an incoming Confederate shot hit the porch, "shattering the door casing and one of the pillars." This was one of the more visible pieces of damage to the house.
Lieutenants William H. R. Neel and John E. Holland served as signalmen on the roof of the house. They performed their duty under heavy fire in that exposed spot. "The Shelton house is riddled," said Holland. Both officers "were struck and bruised" by shell fragments during the course of their work.
The Shelton Family & Home
Mrs. Sarah Shelton, then age 53, three of her adult daughters, and her teenaged son Walter spent the entire battle in the basement dining room. She and a family slave are seen conversing with a Union soldier. At least one Shelton slave seized the opportunity and permanently fled when the Union army arrived.
The house today remains much as it appeared in 1864. However, available evidence suggests that at the time of the Civil War, the roof of the house consisted of cedar shakes, likely dating from the original construction of the house around 1725.
Although in poor health, the elm tree at the edge of the yard today is believed to be a "witness tree," which means it stood here in 1864. It was perhaps one of the only trees near the house at the time of the battle. Most of the land around the house was likely open farm fields.
Last updated: May 20, 2014