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Gettysburg: Profiles in Courage / Henry D. McDaniel

Wounded Georgia POW became governor and lived to be 89

Sunday, July 06, 2003

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Henry D. McDaniel, lawyer, soldier, prisoner of war, millionaire and a governor of Georgia, packed a dozen careers into his lifetime.

Lt. Henry D. McDaniel was wounded and captured at Gettysburg. He survived to become governor of Georgia and found what is now Georgia Tech University.

Gettysburg accounted for just three days of his 89 years on Earth, but it was there that he grabbed the reins of leadership. He never let them go.

After two of his officers were wounded during fighting on July 2, 1863, McDaniel took command of the 11th Georgia Infantry, a band of 328 men, the smallest regiment of the Georgian brigade.

Gettysburg's battlegrounds were a mix of places that sounded deadly (Devil's Den and Cemetery Hill), and idyllic (the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard). All turned bloody.

McDaniel's unit fought in and around the Wheatfield, a 19-acre plot owned by farmer George Rose. The Georgia 11th was among 20,444 soldiers who collided there. In all, 13 Union and six Confederate brigades were at the Wheatfield on the second day of fighting.

Skirmishes began about 4 p.m. July 2. The battle ended 4 1/2 hours later with more than 4,000 soldiers dead or wounded.

McDaniel, who was 26, remembered the Wheatfield as the spot where his unit charged into the teeth of enemy fire, notably from the 17th Maine Infantry. The Northern unit ran out of ammunition as the afternoon hardened into nightfall, allowing Confederate soldiers to storm over a stone wall and into the field.

McDaniel later gave this description of the casualty toll: "The third advance was made in connection with the entire line on that part of the field, and resulted, after a conflict in the ravine of one-half hour, in the rout of the enemy from the field. The loss of the enemy was here very great, his dead lying upon the field by the hundred. Nothing but the exhausted condition of the men prevented them from carrying the heights."

McDaniel's battle experiences went into rapid decline after the Wheatfield.

A Union soldier shot him in the abdomen eight days later in fighting at Funkstown, Md. McDaniel lived thanks to a skilled surgeon and compassionate care, but he had seen his last combat.

He spent the next two years in an Ohio prisoner-of-war camp, going home to Monroe, Ga., after the South's surrender.

As a young man, McDaniel had dreamed of a quiet life as a small-town lawyer. He graduated first in his class at Mercer University in 1856 and was admitted to the Georgia bar the next year.

War between the states cast a shadow over his ambitions. McDaniel, although personally wary of the wisdom of breaking from the North, took a stand with his friends and neighbors. He became the youngest delegate at Georgia's secession convention and, soon after that, a major in the Confederate Army.

During the war, McDaniel carried on a correspondence with the young woman who had command of his attention. Her name was Hester Felker, and he wrote her stacks of letters that she kept in her bonnet box. For unknown reasons, Felker's family did not approve of young McDaniel, even though his father was a Mercer University professor and a businessman so prominent that a street in Atlanta was named after him.

As McDaniel fought and suffered, he wrote Felker even at times when his doctors might have preferred that he rest.

After he was wounded, McDaniel was sent to a physician's home in Hagerstown, Md., to recuperate. Though in great pain and still unable to sit up in bed, he penned a lengthy letter to Felker. Given what he had gone through at Gettysburg and then in Funkstown, he was happy to be alive. He told her just that.

"God has spared my life through careful medical attention and perfect nursing. I could not have received better attention at home. ... My death was regarded as inevitable until the surgeons performed their dangerous operation. Now that my life has been spared, I write painfully to give you renewed assurance of my love."

Felker was smitten. She married him when he returned home.

With Georgia in ruins because of the war, the quiet life McDaniel once envisioned was out of the question. He jumped into the political arena, becoming first a member of the state House of Representatives and then the Georgia Senate.

McDaniel, a Democrat, rose to governor in 1883, filling the term of Alexander Stephens, who had died in office. McDaniel then won election to a two-year term of his own. It ranks as one of the more eventful ones in Georgia politics.

McDaniel started what is now Georgia Tech University, and he oversaw construction of the state capitol in Atlanta. The project came in $112.96 under budget, even as publicly funded buildings across the country where breaking the bank. Friends said McDaniel's frugal style showed his devotion to constituents who were still reeling from the war.

Once back in private life, McDaniel practiced law and made a fortune by investing shrewdly in railroads and cotton mills. He became the richest man in Monroe.

McDaniel died in 1926, six weeks shy of his 90th birthday. Visitors to Monroe still stream into his retirement mansion, which sits on a tree-shaded street that was named in his honor. Today, the McDaniel-Tichenor House is run by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, which also maintains his letters from the war.

Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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