This 1861 scene, courtesy of York County, Pa., resident Dianne Bowders shows York's South George Street. That's Christ Lutheran Church, left, identifable by its steeple. The photographer might have captured the May snowfall that caused flooding at the quarter of Union volunteers staying at Camp Scott - located at the old York Fairgrounds - in the early days of the Civil War. The unpaved South George Street might be spotted with snow while the trees are at full leaf.
What is onion snow? It spelled pungent misery 150 years ago in York, Pa.
This story was originally published in 2011, on the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
The snowfall the region is receiving is probably winter season’s last breath.
“Probably” is used here because we can have more.
Indeed, one snowfall struck York County in early May, 150 years ago, in fact.
That was a clear case of an “onion snow,” so named particularly around Central Pennsylvania because such spring snow showers come after onions have been planted… .
That snowfall was not kind and gentle like what we are receiving.
York was filled with raw soldiers being outfitted in blue in May 1861, one month after the war began with the rebel firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. These green recruits were gathering at the old York Fairgrounds for drilling and forced seasoning because these freshly minted fighting men would be needed on Southern battlefields.
York was up to its neck in the flood of men in new uniforms.
But the accommodations for these visitors was scarce.
Here’s how I described the scene in “East of Gettysburg.”
Soldiers slept in former cattle stalls and sheds. Roofs on some of the fairgrounds buildings leaked.
An early May snowstorm caused water to puddle in some quarters.
Soldiers awoke one morning in a pool of water one-half acre in size.
The people of York quartered some troops, and others found space in the courthouse, churches and vacant buildings until the late-spring sun baked the barracks dry.
These conditions caused colds, fevers and rheumatism. The sick soldiers initially recuperated in private homes, finding soft beds better than lying on damp straw.
Residents often welcomed guests from camp – whether ill or healthy – for meals.
Soon, part of the main exhibition building served as a hospital, and 20 soldiers occupied sick beds.
Still, an observer from the York County Star found the town and camp in good order.
“The troops have provisions in plenty,” he wrote, “and appear to lead a very pleasant life at present.”
No doubt some Yorkers admired the beauty of this onion snow. But the thousands of visitors who were mobbing York probably took a dark view of the white snow.
Also of interest: If it’s onion snow in the spring is it pumpkin snow in autumn? and The terrible Civil War spawned lasting York, Pa., community contributions and Civil War affected women in York County – and vice versa.