It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the robin egg-colored sky is dotted with just a few small, white, puffy clouds, and the temperature is hanging around the 70-degree mark. I can’t help thinking that it’s a perfect day for a walk, so I’m surprised that, when Laurie and I arrive around 1 p.m., there is only one car parked in the lot for the National Park Service’s Totopotomoy Creek Battlefield in Hanover County.
The battlefield is the newest segment of the Richmond National Battlefield Park, having been donated to the park service in 2006 by the Rural Plains Foundation, which purchased the site with a combination of private and county funds. It opened to the public in 2011.
At the end of May, 1864, the Federal army took up a position high above Totopotomoy Creek at the Shelton House, home of Sarah Shelton and her family. The Confederates were on a bluff on the south side of the stream and the two forces fought for several days with no clear victory for either side. The park service has built a short trail through the battlefield’s 125 acres that has numbered stops keyed to a brochure available at the trailhead that helps visitors understand the history they are walking through.
We begin our exploration of the area by peering into the windows of the Shelton House, which is locked and open only on special occasions. Beyond, the level trail goes by fields that are planted in winter wheat, but come here some other time and there may be rows of corn or soybeans. The latter two crops are rotated to avoid wearing out the soil, as the soybeans return nutrients to the earth that the corn takes out. A couple of headstones in a small cemetery beside the trail show that, during the 1800s, many children did not live past their first year.
Leaving the fields, the pathway enters the woods and begins a fairly gentle descent to the creek. Although I have seen earthworks at other Civil War sites that we very obvious, it took some looking around for us to identify the indentations in the ground that indicated the places where the Union soldiers had hurriedly dug up the soil and mounded it in from of them as protection from flying bullets.
Totopotomoy Creek is really just a small stream and it is here that we encounter the only people we were to meet on the outing. A mother is watching her two small children slosh through the mud of the wetlands beside the creek as they work their way to the water in search for small fish, lizards, and other aquatics and amphibious creatures. A number of arrowhead plants are growing in the damp soil and, although I can’t identify which species they are, I do know that past generations ate the tubers of certain arrowheads as a starchy substitute for potatoes.
An impressively-constructed bridge takes us across the creek and out of park service lands, but the owners of the private property, a housing development situated on the lands once occupied by the Southern army, permit visitors to rise along the hillside to walk past the remains of the Confederate earthworks. The trail comes to an end at one of the development cul-de-sacs. We meet no one else on the return trip; I’m again amazed at how little this wonderful Richmond-area resource appears to be used. The park service says it’s a 1.25-mile outing, but I think with the bit of trail on the south side of the creek, you will walk closer to 1.75 miles.
While I enjoyed visiting here in relative solitude, I’m sure I’ll encounter crowds when I return on May 29-31, when the park service has a series of battle anniversary events planned, such as living-history demonstrations, ranger-guided interpretive tours of the site, special exhibits, and lectures. It will also be one of the rare chances to see the interior of the Shelton House.=
Getting There: Take I-295 Exit 41A onto Chamberlayne Road N., go 2.2 miles, turn right onto Shady Grove Road, go another .5 mile and bear left onto Studley Road, which is followed 2.2 miles to the battlefield on the right.