- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

In 1864, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia was in ruins, courtesy of torch-carrying Union soldiers. Five years earlier, before the Civil War began, the small town of Somerset in southeastern Ohio would help lay the groundwork for the Valley's demise.

It was in Somerset, a town not unlike those in my native Shenandoah Valley, that Philip Sheridan was raised after his parents immigrated with the family from Ireland. He grew up on what is now Sheridan Avenue just a few blocks from the center of town, which is about 60 miles southeast of Columbus. In 1859, he built a home for his mother about a mile south of town. It was there that "Little Phil" he was only about 5 foot 5 met with others to discuss politics under an oak tree at a place now known as Sheridan's Grove.

The men who gathered there to hear him could hardly fathom that the 28-year-old Sheridan, a captain when the Civil War began, would rise rapidly and dramatically in the Union Army.

Sheridan gained fame when his 11-mile ride from Winchester, Va., rallied his hard-pressed command to defeat the Rebels near Cedar Creek in October 1864. He then led Union troops on a rampage through the Valley that destroyed crops and homes before ending the destruction just south of Mount Crawford along what is now Route 11.

My visit to Sheridan's town hit close to home: When Sheridan's men helped torch the Valley in 1864, one of the houses they destroyed was on land that had been in my paternal grandmother's family since 1798. Union soldiers started a fire on the farm of Reuben Swope near Dayton, just a few miles from Harrisonburg. They told Swope that if he tried to put out the fire they would shoot him.

As the story goes from a family history published in the 1970s, when the Yankees were out of sight Swope picked up a bucket of water and put the fire out. But he became afraid the Union soldiers would keep their promise, so he started the fire again.

As a youngster, I would wander with my mother around our 90-acre farm, trying to guess where the old house had stood. After the Civil War, another house was built on the property the one that I grew up in. The house still stands (occupied by a new-generation Swope), and so does the boyhood and family homes of Sheridan in Ohio.

When I visited Somerset one summer, just before the Fourth of July, a U.S. flag flew from the front porch of the home Sheridan built for his mother. A plaque, dedicated by the Perry County Historical Society in 1939, is in the front yard, just off Route 13.

Somerset, known as Middletown when it was founded in 1807, began as an overnight stop for folks traveling from the Ohio towns of Lancaster to Zanesville. Sheridan's hometown is just a few miles east of Lancaster, the home of another Northern general who helped burn a different part of the South: William Tecumseh Sherman.

Somerset is laid out in a traditional diamond square, also typical of towns in Pennsylvania. It was the first county seat of Perry County, and the courthouse is in the Georgian style. But Phil Sheridan is the main attraction in Somerset. A high school that bears his name is just west of town, and a memorial to him in the center of Somerset is the only equestrian statue in Ohio.

But do not look for Sheridan's grave in Ohio. The general, who died in 1888 after rising to full general and command of the Army, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in the state where he gained his fame while battling Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

David Driver, a native of Harrisonburg, Va., is a free-lance writer who lives in the Washington area.

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