Civil War Cooking: Patrick Cleburne’s Stewed Watermelon

Before the Civil War and before he became a Confederate general, Patrick Cleburne floundered a bit as he learned the societal and cultural ways of the American South. An Irishman who immigrated to the United States and eventually settled in Arkansas, Cleburne found work as an apothecary in the early 1850’s, employed by two local doctors in Helena, Arkansas.

Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne. Library of Congress.

Here’s the culinary story as relayed in a book about Cleburne written by one of the doctors.

In June the farmers bring into towns a large quantity of watermelons. Cleburne had never seen a watermelon, and therefore was ignorant of its use. One day a wagon drove up in front of the store door with a number of large melons. Joseph Maxey, the apprenticed boy, said to Cleburne, “Buy one and give us a treat.” Cleburne purchased the melon, then turning to Joe asked him how he ate it. Joe, full of mischief, saw his chance to take advantage of Cleburne’s ignorance and said to him, “You must stew it.” 

Cleburne scoured up his brass kettle and made a fire, then cutting up the melon, placed it in the vessel. Joe all the time looking on with a quizzical countenance, expecting the full fruition of a rich joke. 

Now the melon was stewed, what was the next step? Joe says, “Put it into dishes and eat it with a spoon.” Cleburne procured some dishes and spoons from an adjoining neighbor, and cleaning off the counter set them thereon. Joe says, “Now let us wait until the doctors come in, and give them a treat.”

In a short time Dr. Grant and myself made our appearance. Cleburne says, “Gentlemen, I have a nice treat for you,” and opening the middle door, invited us in; Joe standing on the outside of the door ready to make his exit, as soon as the joke was discovered. Upon our drawing close to the dishes, Grant asked what it was.

“A watermelon,” replied Cleburne.

Grant says, “Who ever heard of a melon being stewed; you have spoiled a nice melon, Cleburne!”

Cleburne then found that Joe had played a joke on him and sprang to the door to catch and chastise him, but the bird knew the hunter and had fled. Joe practiced many jokes on Cleburne before he learned our American ways….[1]

This seemed like a research rabbit trail worth pursuing, just to see what happens when watermelon is stewed. I expected it to be a very sticky undertaking, and somehow I thought the sugars in the fruit would crystalize and make a sticky syrup. Secretly, I was hoping for an amazing watermelon drizzle to enhance some plain vanilla ice cream. But an unpleasant surprise awaited me, too.

A ripe, hollow-sounding watermelon was procured from a local Farmers’ Market. (My grandfather told me when I was little that if it sounds hollow it’s a ripe watermelon. It’s always worked!) I sliced it open and cut half the melon into bite-size cubes, adding them to a sauce pan. Sorry – I don’t have a brass kettle. Before turning on the heat, I mashed some of the melon pieces to get some juice into the pan. As the mixture heated, it started to look like stewed tomatoes. The smell was very odd, not really sweet but rather pungent instead. I let the watermelon “stew” for a while until it was thick, then took it off the heat and let it cool.

Following “Joe’s advice,” some dishes and spoons appeared on my own counter, and soon my “treat” was prepared. That first bite was almost indescribably…and in an awful way. I should have video-recorded my reaction. It was so slimy! And the taste: gag-inducing! It was almost like badly burnt sugars with something acidic…even though the mixture wasn’t technically burned. I tried a second bite, but couldn’t swallow it. If time travel was possible, I think I would’ve joined Mr. Cleburne in chasing after Joe.

If anyone is curious, half of a watermelon yields about 2 cups (a pint) of stewed slime.

Trying to have an open mind, I did some modern culinary research to see if any culture uses cooked watermelon. It seems that such a preparation (with more added ingredients) might be used by a famous chef in Fusion Cuisine, so maybe there’s some sort of hope. Also, chilled watermelon soup, pureed with mint sounds rather delightful!

But as for this stewed watermelon…I’m going to add that to the list of “bad ideas tried in the lives of Confederate generals.” Sorry, Cleburne, we’re not letting you bring the desserts!


[1] Charles Edward Nash, Biographical sketches of Gen. Pat Cleburne and Gen. T. C. Hindman: Together with humorous anecdotes and reminiscences of the late Civil War (Little Rock: Tunnah & Pittard, 1898). Pages 12-13, accessed through

7 Responses to Civil War Cooking: Patrick Cleburne’s Stewed Watermelon

  1. Wow!!!! Thanks for taking one for the team. I certainly would have tried making it had you not given the results ?

    1. Ha! I did NOT invite friends over for stewed watermelon, but a brave soul did try pickled pigs feet with me for another historical cooking experiment. (See post for November 22!) Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

    1. Exactly! A watermelon (eaten properly) on a hot June day is such a treat. I wonder what happened to Joe during the Civil War years, but haven’t had a chance to follow that research trail.

  2. This food dive was a great one Sarah. My wife and I spent a good portion of our errand running yesterday wondering why anyone would think stewing a watermelon would work and laughing. Thanks for the brave tasting attempt. We likely would have just disposed of said watermelon after witnessing the results.

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