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New Unit of Richmond National Battlefield Park Now Open to the Public


(Top photo): The earliest known and previously unpublished view of the Shelton House, Rural Plains, is this May 1864 sketch by combat artist Alfred Waud. Park staff discovered the image in the collections of the National Archives. (Bottom photo): Virginia Delegate Christopher K. Peace joins NPS and local officials at the dedication of the Totopotomoy Creek battlefield unit at Richmond NBP. NPS photo.

There's now even more to see and do at Richmond National Battlefield Park—the area's newest unit known as Rural Plains is now open to the public. The area, in Hanover County, Virginia, includes an 18th century house, civil war earthworks, a walking trail and interpretive information, and an interesting human interest angle.

The 124-acre site was transferred to the National Park Service from the Totopotomoy Battlefield at Rural Plains Foundation in 2006. Since then, the park has performed stabilization work on the house, conducted historical landscape and archeological surveys, and is nearing completion of a structural and historical analysis of the house.

According to a park spokesperson, "The multi-faceted history of Rural Plains is exceptional. Its location at the heart of the Totopotomoy Creek battlefield makes it extremely significant. And the historic Shelton house and plantation story give visitors a unique ability to understand the impact of the war on a Virginia family."

That family certainly had an interesting human interest angle to the history of the house and battle.

A park publication notes, "On May 29, 1864, Union troops arrived at Sarah Shelton's home in rural Hanover County to inform her that a battle would soon take place on her farm and to offer to help the family—which ranged in age from 14 to 35—to relocate. Mrs. Shelton resolutely denied the offer and the family remained, sheltering in their basement as the house became a headquarters for Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock."

"A signal station on the roof of the house attracted Confederate fire, and 51 artillery shells hit the building on May 30 alone. After the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek (May 30 -31, 1864) produced no conclusive results for the Federals, Grant began to extend his line southward toward Cold Harbor."

"No house in Hanover County has a more distinguished history than Rural Plains. In addition to its remarkable Civil War experience, the home hosted the 1754 wedding of Patrick Henry and Sarah Shelton. Multiple generations of the Shelton family were proud stewards of the property."

The last descendant, William R. Shelton, Jr., died at age 85 on May 5, 2006. Many of the original furnishings that were present during the 1864 battle were purchased by the National Park Service and will remain with the home. Rural Plains is listed on both the Virginia Landmarks register and the National Register of Historic Places. It is also listed on the Virginia Farm Bureau Bicentennial Farm Register.

The official opening of the site as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park was marked by a dedication ceremony on September 10. The Rural Plains unit includes new interpretive signage, a parking area, and a two-mile walking trail with a published guide available at the site.  The house will be open to the public only during special events.

Richmond National Battlefield Park is home to an abundance of history, and it's spread over 13 separate sites. The park website notes, "Richmond's story is not just the tale of one large Civil War battle, nor even one important campaign. Instead, the park's resources include a naval battle, a key industrial complex, the Confederacy's largest hospital, dozens of miles of elaborate original fortifications, and the evocative spots where determined soldiers stood paces apart and fought with rifles, reaping a staggering human cost."

You'll find information to help plan a visit at this link, but due to the rather complex nature of the park's geography, it would be especially helpful to begin a visit at one of the park's visitor centers.  

The new Rural Plains Unit is located northeast of Richmond along Studley Road (Virginia Route 606) near the Rural Plains Elementary School. Since the site is such a new addition to the park, a stop at a visitor center for detailed directions is suggested.

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