Harrisburg, not Gettysburg, was target of General Lee

Civil War re-enactors. (Source: WHTM)

GETTYSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) -- Harrisburg is rich in history, but often buried in the footnotes of books is the city's important role during the turning point of the Civil War.

That importance is now the focus of a book, "The Confederate Approach on Harrisburg," written by 15-year-old Cooper Wingert, one of the leading historians in our area on the Confederate plan to attack Harrisburg -- General Robert E. Lee's original target.

"He has to come up here. He has to make a big footprint and convince the Northern public, break their will to continue the war," Wingert said. "And capturing Harrisburg, a Northern capital, it is strategically - and breaking the will of the Northern public is huge."

It would have been an easy victory. The Union soldiers were outnumbered and untrained.

"Most of the men up here have never seen battle before," Wingert said. "Most of the men have never fired a gun before. They didn't know how to fire their own guns."

And at Fort Couch, a small West Shore outpost built to defend Harrisburg from an expected Confederate attack, the terrain was bad.

"So if a Confederate strikes the earthwork, it is going to shatter rock into the face of the defenders, and that just makes it worse for these virtually untrained militia," Wingert said.

Confederate general Albert Jenkins was ready to attack. He probed the defenses of Harrisburg, but then in an about-face he received orders to head to Gettysburg.

The battle was brutal for both sides. Thousands were killed. But what if the Confederates had stuck to the original plan?

"If they could take the northern capital and the North said 'enough is enough,' ask Lincoln to ask for peace, that's a lot of 'what if,'" local historian Jim Schmick said.

Historians say remembering the major battle that didn't happen is just as important as remembering what did.

"No matter how big or small the conflict, the men risked there lives just the same and fought for their countries," Schmick said.