Harrisburg residents may not realize that, during the Civil War, Confederate forces nearly captured their city.
On June 29, 1863, advanced elements of Robert E. Lee’s army reached modern-day 28th Street in Camp Hill. Then they received orders to march south to Gettysburg, a stroke of luck that probably spared the state capital and its inexperienced militia defenders.
“Harrisburg came within a day or two of a major Confederate assault,” said local historian Cooper Wingert.
Its loss, he added, “would have been terrible P.R. for Lincoln and the Union war effort.”
Wingert is in a position to know. He has published a dozen books on the Civil War-era history of south-central Pennsylvania. He has lectured widely, won numerous awards for historical research and recently signed books at Midtown Scholar and the Gettysburg Visitor Center.
This is despite the fact he’s only 21 years old.
This history wunderkind is starting his senior year at Dickinson College in Carlisle. But he had the rare experience of seeing his own works in the campus bookstore before attending a single class.
Go Write It
Wingert grew up in Enola. While attending fifth grade at East Pennsboro Elementary School, a field trip to Gettysburg triggered his fascination with Civil War history.
“It was a pretty amazing experience to learn about where a regiment was and then be able to stand in that same spot and then envision how the whole battle unfolded,” he recalled.
Inspired to do his own research, Wingert self-published his first book at the tender age of 12, titled “Virginian in the Vanguard.” He edited and annotated this diary of Confederate Lt. Hermann Schuricht, part of the force that approached Harrisburg in 1863.
Around the same time, the precocious author self-published a diary of a Union artilleryman who was defending Harrisburg.
Shortly thereafter, Wingert wrote the definitive account of a little-known skirmish called the Battle of Sporting Hill. This Union victory, the northernmost engagement of the Gettysburg campaign, flared up on June 30, 1863. The stone foundation of the barn that was center of the action can be seen from the overpass where route 581 crosses the Carlisle Pike.
Realizing that there was no recent book that summarized Confederate movements near Harrisburg, Wingert heeded the advice of acclaimed author Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you want to read that doesn’t exist, then you can go write it.”
So, in 2012, at age 14, he published “The Confederate Approach on Harrisburg.” He estimates that sales exceeded 5,000 copies, his best-selling book to date.
Seen It Before
When researching a book, Wingert consults original sources such as diaries, newspapers and government documents. Living near the state archives in Harrisburg has been a big plus, as has his close proximity to Carlisle’s Army Heritage Center.
But Wingert also credits the internet as “an amazing way to find sources.” It makes the jobs of historians easier because of searchable digitized databases with tens of thousands of newspapers and other archival materials.
Besides military history, Wingert has written books about abolitionists and the Underground Railroad in south-central Pennsylvania. In them, he emphasized that most slaves escaped on their own and that the Underground Railroad basically served as “a reception committee for runaway slaves.”
His latest research has focused on Richard McAllister, the federal government’s notorious fugitive slave commissioner in Harrisburg. McAllister’s job was to arrest runaway slaves from the South so they could be returned to their masters. McAllister ruthlessly enforced the law with indifference to human suffering.
“He was taking advantage of his job for his own self-aggrandizement,” Wingert said. “That’s when Harrisburg’s white community turned against him.”
McAllister’s actions eventually triggered so much outrage that he was driven out of town in disgrace.
In late May, the California military publisher Savas Beatie released Wingert’s most recent book, “Targeted Tracks: The Cumberland Valley Railroad in the Civil War, 1861-1865.” He co-authored this volume with York County historian Scott Mingus.
This railroad ran from Harrisburg to Hagerstown, Md. The Union used it to transport troops and vital supplies.
“It was a pretty crucial stretch,” Wingert stressed. “It was the target of three Confederate invasions.”
The southerners managed to tear up tracks all the way to Mechanicsburg during the Gettysburg campaign. But Union workers repaired the railroad within days of the Confederate retreat.
Wingert also has a fascination with Australian history. Last year, he spent six months at the University of Queensland in Brisbane and recently won an award for writing the best undergraduate essay.
Besides his passion for history, Wingert is a fan of the Baltimore Ravens and golfer Rory McIlroy. He said that golf is his biggest interest outside history and that he can occasionally break 80 on one of several local courses.
Wingert is currently applying to graduate schools and plans to earn a Ph.D. After that, he hopes to become an academic historian while continuing to write accessible books for the general public.
Like many historians, Wingert draws parallels between the past and present. Political commentators frequently cite the deep divide in modern America. But as a historian of the 19th century and slavery, Wingert can provide an informed perspective.
“It’s not something that completely astonishes me because I’ve seen it before in studying the 1850s,” he said. “Not that people shouldn’t be worried, but history shows that this is not entirely unprecedented.”