Civil War Cookin’: Don’t Cry…It’s Just An Onion

civil-war-cookin-happy-thanksgivingOnions. They add great flavor to holiday foods, but they aren’t fun to cut and chop. I usually end up a crying mess…and – oh joy – either my mom or I will have to chop the onions for stuffing and casseroles today! In honor of this vegetable that sneaks into so much of our modern cooking, I’ve rounded-up some recipes and anecdotes for your pre-Thanksgiving historical amusement.

We’ll start with onions in the civilian world of the 19th Century. Mrs. Childs – author of the 1833 “The Frugal Housewife” offered advice for storing onions. “Onions should be kept very dry, and never carried into the cellar except in severe weather, when there is danger of their freezing. By no means let them be in the cellar after March; they will sprout and spoil.”[i]

Want to eat onions for their nutritious value? Again Mrs. Childs had a suggestion:

It is a good plan to boil onions in milk and water; it diminishes the strong taste of that vegetable. It is an excellent way of serving up onions, to chop them after they are boiled, and put them in a stewpan, with a little milk, butter, salt, and pepper, and let them stew about fifteen minutes. This gives them a fine flavor, and they can be served up very hot.[ii]

onionOnion is mentioned in various soups, broths, and other dishes – giving hints that our Civil War era ancestors used onion pretty much in the same ways we do.

Onion had medical uses too. The Family-Nurse – a book providing helpful medical and homeopathic hints for homemakers – proclaims onion’s usefulness for relieving stings,[iii] curing colds (by tying warm onions on the feet!)[iv], and making an ointment for “wounds” and injuries.[v]

The Civil War medical field and military shared a common interest in onions too. It was a fresh vegetable that could be easily preserved to feed to the soldiers to prevent scurvy. Scurvy is a serious disease caused by the lack of Vitamin C and is easily prevented by including fresh fruits or vegetables in a diet. Union armies made an effort to make dried beans and peas part of their soldiers’ regular rations which helped. Confederate armies struggled to provide troops with these additional rations. During the early winter months of 1863, General “Stonewall” Jackson sent soldiers searching for sassasfras roots, wild onions, garlic, and poke sprouts as a remedy for scurvy. [vi](I’m still wondering if the soldiers ate the woodland plunder with thankful hearts…)

And last – but not least – here’s an amusingly bizarre story involving an onion.

Dr. Hunter McGuire
Dr. Hunter McGuire

In the summer of 1862, between the Peninsular Campaign and Cedar Mountain, Confederate troops had a little bit of extra time. It was probably a hot, humid day, and General Jackson was laughing at his medical director, Dr. Hunter McGuire. The surgeon was attempting to eat a raw Burmuda Onion.[vii] Though generally known for their sweeter flavor, it’s possible McGuire wasn’t enjoy the experience…a plausible reason for Jackson’s amusement. (Watch someone eat something they don’t like – there’s usually plenty of grimaces and drink gulping.)

Of course the incident introduces the question: why was McGuire trying to eat an onion? I’d suggest three possibilities. 1) He actually liked onions, but just ended up with a really strong one. 2) He was trying to ward off or cure a cold. 3) Somebody had dared him to do it. Option #3 certainly provides the most entertaining situation, but since we don’t have the facts, I’ll leave it to your imagination.

Hopefully, we’ve given you some “food for thought” and something to chuckle about as the onions make you cry. Happy Day Before Thanksgiving Onion Chopping!


[i] Mrs. Childs, The American Frugal Housewife, 1833, page 33

[ii] Ibid, page 36

[iii] Mrs. Childs, The Family Nurse, 1837, page 146

[iv] Ibid, page 144

[v] Ibid, page 129

[vi] James I. Robertson, Jr, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend, page 674

[vii] Ibid, page 521

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