Tuesday, Dec 13, 2011
The desire to maximize good things, embodied in the old phrase “have your cake and eat it, too,” can be applied to virtually any situation—even land acquisition in a national park. The newest unit at Richmond National Battlefield Park amply illustrates that point.
A 124-acre tract of land associated with the Civil War battle called Totopotomoy Creek came to the park in 2006, helpfully filling a critical gap in the story of the 1864 campaign outside Richmond. A tremendous bonus came with the property – one of the oldest houses in central Virginia, sitting intact, full of unexplored stories sure to reward visitors and historians for generations to come.
Family tradition maintained that the “Rural Plains” house dates from the 1670s, and that the Shelton family was there from the beginning. Dendrochronology proved that the structure actually dates from circa 1723-1725, meaning it was built nearly a decade before George Washington’s birth. Virginia governor and Colonial-era patriot Patrick Henry married one of the Shelton girls; local legend says that event occurred at “Rural Plains,” although confirmation has proved elusive.
More than 100 years later, contending Union and Confederate armies confronted one another along Totopotomoy Creek just prior to the famous Battle of Cold Harbor. For 72 hours the front line of the United States Army, at least in part, ran through this already-historic property.
The chance to preserve this singular site within the NPS system involved the collaboration of many history-minded partners. A local developer created the Totopotomoy at Rural Plains Foundation, which purchased the house and surrounding land from the final generation of Sheltons, subject to a life estate. State and county authorities offered assistance, as did land preservation organizations. The life estate expired in 2006 and the property immediately became a part of Richmond NBP.
Since then the park has been occupied with a wide mixture of diverse work. Emergency stabilization of the house, preliminary archeological investigations, a historic structures report, and a cultural landscape report all have provided endlessly fascinating twists and turns. The unanticipated discovery of trunks and boxes full of manuscripts, photographs, and scattered piles of documents has been a tremendous supplement to the antebellum books and furniture purchased from the family before 2006.
On September 10th, Richmond NBP officially opened the site to the public. Guided by an interpretive concept plan for the site, a new parking lot allows visitor access, and a color trail brochure guides pedestrians through the battlefield and around the exterior of the house. The “Rural Plains” house itself, while in much better condition now than it was five years ago, remains a work in progress. Many tasks lie ahead before the historic building can be an architectural showpiece that complements the Civil War story, but visitors to Richmond NBP now have the best of many worlds—interpretation of a key battlefield landscape, exposure to a fabulous historic structure, and a magnificent view of how a Virginia plantation community, both white and African American, responded to the effects of war and the subsequent social and economic changes.
This work is a powerful embodiment of two initiatives from the “Call To Action – the first, “Fill In the Blanks,” and the fourth, “History Lessons.”