Grant and Onions

If we are to believe numerous websites, Ulysses S. Grant telegraphed the authorities in Washington in 1864 as follows:

“I will not move my army without onions.”

Moreover, so the story goes, within a day three trainloads arrived at his command.

You can follow the Google search results here.

This seems a bit odd. The claim is that this demand was issued in 1864. However, if it was issued while Grant was in the west, it would have taken more than a day for a telegraph to be received, acted upon, and have three trainloads of onions make their way to Tennessee. If it was issued between the time Grant came east in March and the commencement of the Overland Campaign, the Army of the Potomac would indeed be supplied by rail; afterwards, such would not be the case.

A search of the Grant papers for 1864 reveals no such reference to onions. See here, here, here, and here, or simply conduct a broader search from here.

Fans of onions have made a big deal out of this claim, as one can see by paging through the search results, but I haven’t been able to find the telegram in question. So, folks, I leave it to you: any truth to this tale?

By the way, I don’t particularly like onions, although I like french onion soup … so long as there aren’t too many onions in it. Go figure.

29 thoughts on “Grant and Onions

  1. Eric A. Jacobson November 1, 2013 / 8:32 am

    I hate the Internet more and more every day.

    • Ned November 1, 2013 / 5:32 pm

      This quote predates the Internet, though the Internet helps to reveal its history. It has appeared in print at various times during the last 150 years. The earliest appearance I could find was in the November 1898 [yes 1898, not 1998] issue of ‘Food Home and Garden’ which was a newsletter of the Vegetarian Society of American. The short entry featuring this quote appeared as:

      “An artillery officer states that during the summer of 1864, General Grant telegraphed to the War Department: “I will not move my army without onions.” The next day. three train loads of onions were moved to the front. He regarded onions as an antedote for dysentery and other camp diseases.”

  2. James F. Epperson November 1, 2013 / 8:45 am

    Well, I love onions, but that is not this issue.

    I suspect the issue is scurvy and other nutrition deficiency related diseases. It may be true, based on a lost telegram, and embellished over time, or it may be a second-hand story (of dubious accuracy) told to emphasize the way Grant’s wishes were met by the War Department. I assume you have looked at the relevant second-hand sources (Lyman, etc.) to see if they say anything.

    FWIW, I hate the digital interface into the Grant Papers. May be just a learning curve thing, but I don’t think it is done very well at all.

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 1, 2013 / 9:08 am

      This has never been a deep research question that has attracted my interest. Indeed, I came across it by accident this morning. That said, Porter would be far more likely than Lyman, for obvious reasons. The only onions going to Meade’s headquarters would be for the times that Meade wasn’t whining about Grant getting more attention or Meade being overlooked, and it would be hard to identify when that wasn’t happening.

      Next we’ll hear that Lincoln asked what sort of onions Grant wanted, so he could send trainloads of them to all his generals.

      • James F. Epperson November 1, 2013 / 10:16 am

        😉

        You mean you don’t spend all your time trying to confirm the stories that Grant liked pickles?

        Yeah, Porter would have been a much better suggestion.

  3. Noma November 1, 2013 / 8:59 am

    Actually, we just had a similar discussion a couple weeks ago, on the Yankee Heritage facebook page. This is the closest I can come:

    ****************************

    On Nov. 1 [1862], USG telegraphed to Cox. “I wish you would get a supply of Potatoes, Onions, Whiskey and Beer for delivery to different Commissaries. It is absolutely necessary that these articles should be had, at least in sufficient quantities for the Hospitals. I am expecting Hawkins today, and will then have published the orders you ask for.”

    …On the same day, Cox telegraphed to USG. “I am moving heaven & earth to get supplies of potatoes & onions from arrangements made yesterday I am confident a more liberal supply may be expected very soon but at excessive prices potatoes 80 & 85¢ Onions 1.25 — whisky shall be forthcoming, but Beer is impractible to procure within the dept — ”

    — John Y. Simon – Papers of Ulysses S. Grant Vol. 6, p. 233 (right after Nov 1, 1862 letter to General Henry Halleck)

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 1, 2013 / 9:03 am

      I came across that example, which doesn’t seem all that unusual to me, and offers at best faint support for the claim posted all over the place. Indeed, I thought “beer for hospitals” would have raised a few eyebrows, especially as the request was coming from Grant.

      • Noma November 1, 2013 / 9:09 am

        No kidding.

  4. Talmadge Walker November 1, 2013 / 9:00 am

    They’re loaded with vitamin C so it’s plausible, but Epperson’s probably right.

  5. Noma November 1, 2013 / 9:08 am

    Of course the even more relevant inquiry for this month is: What did the former Quartermaster think about Cranberries?

    ******************

    Next to turkey and stuffing, no food is more linked to Thanksgiving than cranberry sauce; you’d think that buckle-shoed Pilgrims were slipping tubes of jellied Ocean Spray onto the original Plymouth table.

    In fact, the American Thanksgiving tradition of cranberry sauce started when Civil War Union General Ulysses S. Grant served the condiment to his troops during the Siege of Petersburg. This bitter, nine-month stalemate also marked the beginnings of trench warfare, with both forces stubbornly embedded, sniping from mud holes over a long, Virginia winter. The Confederate Army finally yielded in 1865, ceding the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, to the Union Army. We commemorate Grant’s linchpin Civil War victory every year by consuming cranberry sauce.

    And while we’d like to think that those Pilgrims were eating bronzed Butterball turkeys, there are no documents remaining from 1621 that describe the actual menu of the original feast. In fact, we don’t even know the exact autumn month in which it occurred—the original Thanksgiving meal might have been eaten in September or October (though we know it took three days to eat). Again, our modern Thanksgiving meal has Civil War-era origins: in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the last Thursday of every November. This explains why today’s Thanksgiving meal—with stuffed game and sugary fruit compote—feels so reminiscent of 19th-century menus. ”

    http://www.westchestermagazine.com/Westchester-Magazine/November-2010/Thanksgiving-The-Civil-War-And-Cranberry-Sauce/

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 1, 2013 / 9:15 am

      Yup, I’ve also heard about the cranberries.

      Grant the foodie.

      • John Foskett November 1, 2013 / 10:26 am

        He does have the same reputation for imbibing as Mr. Bourdain. 🙂

  6. Noma November 1, 2013 / 9:54 am

    James Epperson says, “FWIW, I hate the digital interface into the Grant Papers. May be just a learning curve thing, but I don’t think it is done very well at all.”

    I agree. I find it very difficult to use. Also, you can’t copy and paste the quotes.

    It would be great if they had a well-done training video on how to use the collection.

    *********************

    And on other food topics, I’d like to hear more about descrated vegetables. Were they new in the 1800’s?

    • Bob Huddleston November 4, 2013 / 5:14 pm

      PUSG is slower than George Thomas attacking but it is way better than nothing. If you know the volume and page, go to it, double click then at the top click Text. Easy to copy, paste and clean up.

  7. Al Mackey November 1, 2013 / 10:16 am

    When I first saw it come across my Twitter feed I thought it was from The Onion.

  8. Roger E Watson November 1, 2013 / 11:18 am

    As we all know, Grant had “onions”. Therefore, there was no need to request them.

  9. Tony November 1, 2013 / 11:45 am

    Besides the fact that there is no known record of this quote, it rings completely false for two reasons:

    1. Grant wasn’t one for *demanding* anything from his superiors, which is one of the reasons he was destined to become head of the armies.

    2. When the hell did Grant’s superiors *ever* get a threat from him that he wouldn’t move his army? Maybe a more believable threat would be “I will not cease moving my army until I get some onions.” The idea of Grant threatening to sit still is completely laughable.

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 1, 2013 / 9:02 pm

      I think the concept of wanting onions makes perfect sense, for the reasons’ cited. The quote, however, seems off. I could see something like “Given the conditions prevalent in my command, a supply of onions would make a great deal of difference in their health and thus ability to move” or “Illness makes it difficult to move. Send onions.”

  10. Tony November 1, 2013 / 11:58 am

    Maybe this quote is incorrectly attributed to Grant? If so, who is most likely to have said something to this effect and when?

    My vote is Joseph Hooker, circa 1863, as part of his plan to improve the morale of the AotP by issuing them fresh food more frequently.

  11. Donald R. Shaffer November 1, 2013 / 3:24 pm

    Are you sure this might not have been a garbled transmission or clerical mistake? Perhaps Grant meant, “I will not move my army without orders”? I hate onions with a passion, but that’s irrelevant. Onions doesn’t really make sense in this context, James quite logical interpretation not withstanding. “Orders” makes the alleged message make perfect sense, and garbled messages over the telegraph or messages mistakenly interpreted by clerks from Morse Code must have happened from time to time.

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 1, 2013 / 5:18 pm

      I’m not the one who crafted the quote, so you’ll have to ask them,. I claim no special insight into the mindset of the quote’s (unnamed and perhaps unknown) creator.

    • Ned November 1, 2013 / 6:24 pm

      I think onions makes a good deal of sense in this context. Scurvy was a real concern in the army and onions were one of the the solutions.

      This quote may be a distortion of an event that occurred in March 1863. The US Sanitary Commission had sent delegates to tour Grant’s army near Vicksburg. They found soldiers health to be poor because of lack of vegetables especially a lack of those known to combat scurvy such as onions, cabbages, turnips. Allegedly the army commissary had been trying to procure sufficient vegetables without success. (I deal with government contracting officers and I can imagine…) So the Sanitary Commission officials returned to Chicago and distributed a flyer all around the midwest which said “Grant’s Army in danger of scurvy. Rush forward anti-scorbutics.”

      A Commission official would later write “Then ensued a passage in the history of the North-west that was one of the most remarkable of the varied experiences of the Aid Societies.” The result was a community based relief effort the led to an outpouring of vegetables for Grant’s army:
      “All through the month, potatoes and onions, sour-krout and pickles, rolled across the Central Eailroad, and sailed down the Mississippi. A line of vegetables connected Chicago and
      Vicksburg. Not less than a hundred barrels a day were shipped, and generally the average was more. … No exertion, no sacrifice, was considered too great to be made in behalf of the army investing Vicksburg.”

  12. Ned November 1, 2013 / 6:51 pm
    • Brooks D. Simpson November 1, 2013 / 8:47 pm

      You would think the quote in the story would be good enough.

    • Donald R. Shaffer November 1, 2013 / 8:57 pm

      The evidence here is sufficient, indeed overwhelming. I stand corrected. Makes me wonder if Confederate commanders made the same sort of demand?

      • Brooks D. Simpson November 1, 2013 / 9:00 pm

        Next: Jackson preferred onions to lemons (or other forms of citrus).

  13. jfepperson November 4, 2013 / 8:00 am

    I vaguely remember this song from the 60s:

    • Mark H. November 4, 2013 / 3:37 pm

      Well, since Grant was never shy in taking some risks to achieve success, I thought the quote related to Bill Raftery’s interpretation:

      “So it is with Bill Raftery. Raftery’s genius — which, in some corners of the basketball-watching populace, still goes underappreciated — did not spring from the ether into existence. It is formed over a long period of time, in which spontaneous eruptions lead to classic analytical outbursts. How do I know this? Ian Eagle, Raftery’s CBS college basketball broadcast partner, spilled the beans on Dan Levy’s On The DL podcast:

      “I remember it vividly. It was my first year and the Nets were playing a game down in Miami. And Kevin Edwards hit a big three from the corner to give the Nets a one-point lead late in the game. I had the call: ‘Edwards from the corner, three is GOOD.’ And Raf goes, ‘OOOOH, ONIONS!!!!’

      And I turn to him, and I knew Raf’s Raf-to-English translation like the back of my hand. I was able to provide listeners with the track that they needed to follow along. But I had no idea what he was talking about. So I turn to him during the break and say, ‘Bill, Raf, I don’t get that, what is that? Onions? What, it was so good that you cried?’ He said, ‘Hey Bird (Raf’s nickname for Eagle) … BIG BALLS.’ And that was it. That’s when ONIONS was born.”

  14. Greg Taylor November 8, 2013 / 2:51 pm

    Here is a use for onions that could have been put to good military advantage during the Civil War. To follow is an excerpt of a letter written from the Siege of Petersburg dated 4 July 1864 by my g-g grandfather Adj. William B. Phillips of the 2nd. PA Provisional Heavy Artillery:

    “We had a big treat today. Somebody sent us a barrel of onions and about 200 pickles. The boys have a breath this evening more strong than sweet. If the “ Johnnies ” ever attempt a break tonight, I half believe they’ll be driven back by the rather strong odor of onions.”

    The complete letter can be read on my tribute to my ancestor at http://wbp2ndpaha.wordpress.com/july-1864/

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