The Civil War Round Table of Gettysburg welcomed historian Cooper Wingert, author of “The Underground Railroad in South Central Pennsylvania,” to its recent gathering on the evening of Thursday, May 28. Modeling Abraham Lincoln, Wingert began the presentation with a story.

He’d been in a class at Georgetown University, talking about his subject for this evening, and was asked by a student, “How come the slaveholders didn’t hear it?” “Didn’t hear what?” “The train.”

Of course, the only engines on the Underground Railroad were of the human variety. Reading from Professor Robert Bloom’s “A History Of Adams County Pennsylvania” (Adams County Historical Society, 1992): “This was the name given to a covert system of helping runaway slaves from the South find their way to Northern communities, even to Canada.” Located on the Mason-Dixon line, bordering slave-holding Maryland, Adams County, Pa., would be an important stop on the surreptitious route.

Prominent among what Bloom terms the “coterie of ‘conductors’ and ‘station masters’ on this freedom line” was James McAllister, who operated a mill south of Gettysburg on Baltimore Pike, and hid fugitives “in the cog pit of the mill, relatively safe from pursuing slave catchers while they rested for the next stage of their journey north.” (Stone Sentinels, “The Battle of Gettysburg: McAllister’s Mill.”)

Wingert is an interesting guy. If you image a Civil War historian as an old man in a stuffy office somewhere, think again. The round table regularly hosts young historians doing cutting-edge work, none more prolific, I suppose, than Wingert. At age 24, the Harrisburg native has already authored 10 books. Surfing the web, we find an article in the June 21, 2013, Harrisburg Patriot-News, headlined, “Cooper Wingert, Harrisburg Historian, has three nationally published books by age 15.” Goodness gracious! These weren’t just schoolboy projects. His 2012 account, “The Confederate Approach On Harrisburg: The Gettysburg Campaign’s Northernmost Reaches” would receive the prestigious Dr. James I. Robertson Jr. Literary Prize for Confederate History.

In 2018, Cooper spent six months studying in Australia and came back to the USA with literary honors from the University of Queensland. Throw this in (and nearly a half-century his elder, I think this is OK for me to say): He’s a good-looking kid, coming across humble and entirely down-to-earth. There’s a lot to like about Cooper Wingert, not the least of which is what he represents for the future of Civil War-era scholarship.

Wingert’s presentation to the Gettysburg Round Table harkened back to the founding of America in general, Pennsylvania in particular. As a transplant from the mid-west, it hadn’t occurred to me that slavery was practiced in the “Quaker Colony,” but such was indeed the case, albeit on a small scale.

While Pennsylvania would be one of the first states to abolish slavery, the legislation didn’t free anyone right away, but provided instead for “gradual emancipation.” People enslaved before March 1, 1780, would be in bondage for life; those born after said date were to be freed on their 28th birthday. Bottom line: The Pennsylvania statute didn’t liberate anyone until 1808. For that matter, a child born of a slave in, let’s say, 1785, wouldn’t be free until turning 28 in 1813. By way of illustration, Cooper shared an advertisement from the December 23, 1829, The Adams Sentinel: A “Negro Boy” was being offered for sale, having “two years and nine months to serve” until his 28th birthday. Best case scenario, someone bought the young man’s service for those 33 months, at which time he would be a free man. A worse case is presented by historian Samuel W. Mitcham Jr.: “Massa’…could always sell his slaves south before the liberation date,” making it entirely possible that the “Negro Boy” celebrated his 28th birthday “in a tobacco field in Virginia or a rice paddy in South Carolina,” and would remain a slave for life.

Among other learnings gleaned from the Wingert presentation: While the Underground Railroad is usually associated with clandestine operations under the cover of night, some of the most effective work was done in the light of day by advocacy groups through the rule of law.

Case in point: Gettysburg’s “Slaves Refuge Society” made no secret of its agenda, openly declaring in 1841, “We feel it our indispensable duty to assist such of our brethren as shall come among us for the purpose of liberating themselves, and to raise all the means in our power to effect our object, which is to give liberty to our brethren groaning under the tyrannical yoke of oppression.” The material I’ve cited so far is but a fraction of what was a very educational program. Happily, you can catch Cooper’s talk in its entirety via our video archives, accessed on Facebook and our website, cwrtgettysburg.org.

As is our long-standing practice, the Civil War Round Table of Gettysburg will spend this summer on the battlefield, meeting on the fourth Thursdays of June, July and August at 6 p.m.

On June 23, Dr. Jennifer M. Murray will give us an assessment of George Gordon Meade’s Battle of Gettysburg decision-making.

On July 28, Licensed Battlefield Guide James Hessler will take us on the path of Confederate Gen. Alfred Iverson’s doomed brigade.

On Aug. 25, we’ll gather at Benner’s Hill, east of town on Hanover Road, to hear LBG Therese Orr tell of the artillery duel between Confederates on this ground and Unionists on Culp’s Hill. Our summer tours are member-only events and will not be livestreamed. However, if you go to our web page (cwrtgettysburg.org) and scroll down to “Join or Renew Your Membership,” you’ll find that joining is both easy and economical. We would welcome your enlistment.

Bruce Davis is president of the Civil War Round Table of Gettysburg. The opinions and ideas expressed here are his own and he invites you contact him at brdgettysburg@gmail.com.

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