On May 29, 1864, when the war came to Sarah Shelton's Hanover County front porch, she scolded the intruding general and told him to go away.
Union II Corps commander Major General Winfield Scott Hancock couldn't oblige. He instead established his headquarters there. Cannon and mortars positioned in the front lawn fired across Totopotomoy Creek at the Confederate division of Major General John C. Breckinridge.
The woman of the house was told to take her son and three daughters out of danger. She refused. Her husband Edwin, a colonel in the Virginia militia, was just across the creek with the Confederate forces. Sarah took her children into the basement.
Union signalmen clambered upon the house's roof. Across the creek, an exasperated Edwin Shelton tried persuading Breckinridge not to shoot at his house. Rural Plains had been in the Shelton family for generations. Patrick Henry married another Sarah Shelton in the front parlor in 1754. Breckinridge could no more avoid making a target of Rural Plains than Hancock could leave it.
Confederate artillery rocketed 51 shells into the house.
"Rural Plains was at the vortex between two armies," Richmond National Battlefield Park Superintendent David Ruth says. Like numerous Civil War battles, it goes by several names, like the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek and Bethesda Church.
Sarah Shelton and her children took shelter in the brick house's basement while Hancock's headquarters staff tromped around upstairs and cannon shells struck. The clash of armies here caused Grant to choose not to grind away, and forces moved off to what became the Cold Harbor. Around Rural Plains, 750 Union soldiers died, 1,200 Confederates.
The experience made friends of Hancock and the Sheltons, and Hancock and some of his staff visited afterward.
The house and grounds stayed in Shelton hands until 2006, when the remaining family descendant, William I. Shelton, sold the property, including 124 acres, for $1.2 million. The Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT), the American Battlefield Protection Program and Hanover County provided funds. Shelton died on May 5 of that year, missing the handover ceremony by less than a month. Andy Shield, a regional developer, encouraged preservation of the property.
NPS's only expense was in the purchase of three dozen items in the house, including books and furniture present there in 1864. The NPS, which administers 2,200 acres, has few funds available for the interpretation of the property, which is one of Ruth's concerns for 2011.
"We don't have to build anything; it's all already here," he says. "But my worry is, and I really do worry, is preserving what we have." The fields of Cold Harbor, Gaines Mill, Glendale and New Market Heights are all in the path of another assault — that of suburbia.
Cold Harbor is consistently in the top 10 of the CWPT's annual assessment of "Most Endangered" battlefields. Earlier this year, Sen. Jim Webb successfully sponsored a bill reauthorizing for five years the Civil War Battlefield Preservation Act of 2009. Ancestors of Webb fought on both sides. The act helped save acreage around Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg.
Cold Harbor is hemmed in by subdivisions. Ruth says that the purchase of critical acres eludes the NPS. "Where most of the men did their fighting and dying, to the south and north, isn't on park property. We can negotiate only with willing sellers."
About 300 acres of what was once a 7,500-acre battlefield are preserved.
At Cold Harbor, Grant sought the destruction of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. On June 3, 1864, in about a half hour's time, approximately 7,000 Northern soldiers gave their last full measure during a direct assault against Confederate field fortifications. Confederate commander Evander Law said, "It was not war; it was murder." Grant regretted ordering the assault
In the end, 15,500 men died.
Ruth recalls that not long ago he was at the Cold Harbor visitor kiosk and in the space of an hour three different out-of-state people approached him, searching for the place where a relative's unit fought.