The carnage of the Civil War was well-known to the soldiers who fought in the bloody battles. The public had a sense of the brutality because of the new medium of photography, which captured some of the real-life horror of war. But to many Americans, death in war was still thought of as glorious.
That changed when Lessel Long published the book “Twelve Months in Andersonville,” detailing his experiences in the infamous Confederate prison camp in Georgia. He graphically described the conditions of the camp, with its overcrowding, suffering, and staggering number of deaths from malnutrition and disease. His book gave the public a shockingly realistic view of the war, and became a culturally and historically significant work.
Lessel Long was born to Alfred and Lurany Long on February 20, 1838, in Randolph County, Indiana. The family, which included seven children, moved to Andrews in 1846. Lessel grew up working the family farm, receiving a limited education. At 18, he left his family’s farm to apprentice with a blacksmith and eventually reached the level of journeyman.
His blacksmith career ended with the Civil War. Long’s parents raised him and his siblings to abhor slavery, so Long enlisted with Company F of the 13th Indiana Infantry Regiment of the Army when the Union began recruiting for soldiers in 1862. His company saw action all along the Eastern theater of the war.
On May 10, 1864, at Chester Station, Virginia, Long was attempting to bring a prisoner back to his camp when he wandered into enemy territory and was captured. Three weeks later, he was officially imprisoned at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia.
By that point in the war, General Ulysses S. Grant, head of the Union forces, had stopped exchanging prisoners with Confederate forces, leading to the quick overcrowding of prison camps on both sides.
The conditions Long experienced at Andersonville Prison were deplorable. An estimated 13,000 of the 45,000 Union soldiers in the prison died, primarily from neglect, malnutrition, exposure, and a host of illnesses and diseases brought on by unsanitary living conditions. Roughly 900 soldiers died every month, including 97 deaths in one day on August 23, 1864.
Long, who staved off death multiple times, would later recall what he and others endured.
There was a month where it rained nearly every day, followed by weeks of unbearable heat. The soldiers struggled daily for survival. There was not enough food or shelter. A creek running through the camp served as both a source of drinking water and as a sewer. Food that was provided was rotten or infested. The dead were not buried. Prisoners also suffered the brutality of the prison guards. Beatings were frequent.
The war ended April 9, 1865, and Long was released from Andersonville on April 28.
In August of 1865, the superintendent of the prison — Swiss native Captain Henry Wirtz — was charged with “conspiracy to kill and weaken Union soldiers,” and was hanged for the crime in later that year.
Upon being freed, Long returned to Andrews and ran a carriage business until 1877. He branched out by adding general hardware and farming supplies to his list of products sold before becoming proprietor of the Old Reliable Grocery on main street in Andrews. He also became a coal merchant with his wife Mary.
At that same time, Long began to submit stories of his time at Andersonville as a small column titled “Army Life” in the Andrews Express, a local newspaper. The columns were received well by the people of Andrews, so much so that he was encouraged by his friends and neighbors to publish his experience as a book, which he did in 1886, under the title of “Twelve Months in Andersonville” and the subtitle “On the march — in battle — in the Rebel prison pens, and at last in God’s country.”
In the book, Long theorized that conditions in the camp were created intentionally to spur calls for an end to the war. “The deliberate cruelty was practiced in the hope that the desperate suffering in the rebel pens, reports which were beginning to be heard in the North, would create such a sentiment as to demand a cessation of hostilities in the interest of humanity,” he wrote.
Long’s book is considered by scholars to be culturally important and a vital look at the experiences — in all their raw details — that Civil War soldiers faced. The book is now in the public domain and remains widely available.
Later in his life, Long ran into financial trouble. During his time as Andrews town treasurer from 1891-96, he embezzled $3,000 from the town to keep his business afloat. He vowed to pay the amount back, but never did. He spent six months in the Andrews jail, but was never convicted of a crime. The case was eventually settled with the town.
Long died at the age of 77 on May 31, 1915, at his home in Andrews after suffering heart problems. His funeral was attended by a large crowd of Andrews residents, largely due to the impact his book had in showing the realities of Andersonville Prison and the Civil War.