John Muir and the Civil War
(from University of the Pacific, John Muir Newsletter, Vol.
12, No. 4, Fall, 2002).
PDF (1.5 MB) (Off-site link)
"I suppose you have heard
that they have drafted up in Marquette County and w1ll be anxious
to hear who are drafted. . ... you may be glad you were not taken." 
Annie Muir penned these words in November, 1862, to her brother
John who was a student at Wisconsin State University in Madison.
Two years before, when he was twenty-two years old John had traveled
from his farm home in Marquette County to the capitol city. He carried
a bundle of mechanical inventions he had carved from shagbark hickory
to display at the Tenth Annual Agricultural State Fair, an exciting
event held on the ten-acre grounds below the university. His unique
wooden clocks were housed in The Temple of Art and created quite
a stir among the fair goers. This was Muir's introduction to the
world beyond the farm.
When the fair was over John spent a few months
in Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River and then returned to
Madison where he enrolled in the second twenty-week State University
term beginning February 6, 1861. As he wrote in The
Story of My Boyhood and Youth: "I
was desperately hungry and thirsty for knowledge and willing to endure
anything to get it." He wrote of the kind professor "who
welcomed me to the glorious University - next to the kingdom of heaven." 
John settled into the northeast comer room on the first floor of
the North Dormitory perched on the brink of the hill overlooking
Fourth Lake. From his window he could take in the inspirational beauty
of the lake and surrounding landscape. He spent portions of the next
three years in the stimulating college atmosphere.
A few weeks after
his enrollment a shadow darkened the land when Fort Sumter was fired
upon on April12, 1861. The Civil War had begun and Wisconsin immediately
switched to a war footing. Governor Randall addressed the state legislature
about determining how to set up training camps to arm and equip men
and shape them into regiments. He said, "They should be made skillful
in the use of arms ... The men sent to war should be soldiers when
they go."  Camp Randall was soon established
on the fairground lands below College Hill and became the major training
ground for most of Wisconsin's 70,000 soldiers.
After a summer of farm work, John returned
to campus in the fall, bringing his brother David with him. He was
keenly aware of the drastic change in
the Madison atmosphere from the gala days of the fair. Military companies
now drilled in the Temple of Art where he had displayed his hickory inventions
the year before.
Despite the charged atmosphere, John enthusiastically pursued
his studies. Two highly esteemed professors had a profound influence on him
and his life direction. James Davie Butler, the gentle professor of the classics,
stirred his love for great literature while Ezra Slocum Carr, professor of
chemistry and natural history, showed him "nature's basement rooms." 
The two men became John's friends and he kept in close touch with them and
their families in the years to come. But, all the while he was in school, wartime
events affected him and became a part of his daily life.
At the outbreak of
hostilities, many university students signed up for military duty and there
was often difficulty maintaining enough students to continue classes. In speaking
of his small Greek classes, Professor Butler said that "students whose
last names were far apart in the alphabet sat close together on the bench."
John often walked down College Hill to Camp Randall to visit his friends
there and would minister to them as well. In a way he was following in the
footsteps of his father, a self-made minister who preached around the Marquette
County countryside. John attempted to provide moral guidance when he lectured
his friends "upon the necessity of having the character formed and being
possessed" of tightly clenched principles before being put to such a trial
as a three year soaking in so horrible a mixture." 
"The showy coverings
of war hide its real hideousness," he wrote in the fall of 1861 to Frances
Pelton of Prairie du Chien. He described for her the scene at Camp Randall
when her cousins left for the front with the Seventh Regiment:
down the morning they left Madison and helped Byron to buckle on his knapsack.
Dwight with his fife seemed uncommonly happy but 0 how terrible a work is
assigned them ... how strange that such [men] can so completely compose themselves
for such work and even march to the bloody fray in a half dance with a smile
on their faces and perhaps a loud laugh." 
Meanwhile, John satisfied his
deep hunger for learning as he vigorously pursued his studies. He also took
part in campus activities and made friends.
He set up chemical experiments
in his room and crafted mechanical inventions such as his later famous study
desk. Introduced to the structure of a locust flower, he became excited about
the study of botany, collecting plants from nearby woods, hills and lakes,
and taking them back to his room to study. His years at Wisconsin State University
helped to prepare him for his life work.
As time went on the war became a grim
reality when more and more casualties occurred upon the battlefield. John's
friend Bradley Brown from Marquette County was one of the wounded. He had participated
in youthful escapades with John. His brother William came to Madison to search
for him at Camp Randall, but unable to locate him, he visited with John at
the North Dormitory instead. Eventually, Bradley was found ill at Camp Dennison.
There were fewer volunteers and recruits to fill the growing need for more
men so finally the United States government resorted to a draft. On July 1,
1862, President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 more men. Another draft followed
In November, Wisconsin Governor Salomon ordered the draft commissioners
to begin enrollment of all men between the ages of 18 and 45. On January 31,
1863, he ordered all drafted men to report to Camp Randall. For some months
there was a great deal of activity and confusion in expediting the draft and
The gloom of war was a constant burden for the Muirs and
their neighbors. Young James Whitehead told of his discharge from the Army
in February of 1863 and being sent home to die but rallied because of the care
and hope he received from John's father. Daniel Muir spent a great deal of
time at Whitehead's bedside and brought him books.
John's mother Anne constantly
worried that her sons would be drafted. On March 1, 1863, she brought John
up to date on the situation of his brother Dan.
"Daniel left home yesterday
for Canada. His father said he would not hinder him if he wished to go but
would not advise him. He wouldn't give him money, but said I might if I wished.
It is a hard trial to me - all my boys have left me. I try to think it is
for the best. You will have heard of this new conscription law exempting
It is clear from this letter that in the midst of the frantic rush to shore
up the Union forces John's brother Dan went to Canada to avoid being drafted.
On May 16, 1863, Anne Muir wrote a sad letter to John from her home
in Portage near the Wisconsin River where the Muir family now lived:
yet there seems to be no end to this unhappy war. It is rumored there
will be drafting in this state in the month of June. I hope it will
not take place. The dreadful miseries occasioned by this awful war
can never be known. I hope it will speedily come to an end." 
Anne seemed to find comfort in her walks along the river where
she could forget for a time her worry over the war.
his university career till the end of the spring, 1863, term. He
did not return in the fall. He stayed at Fountain Lake Farm with
his sister Sarah and her husband David Galloway who now owned the
original Muir farm.
Earlier he had thoughts of enrolling in the University
of Michigan. In a letter written in the fall of 1863 he explained
to his brother Dan in Canada why he did not do this. "A draft
was being made just when I should have been starting for Ann Arbor,
which kept me at home." 
Late in 1863 Camp Randall was flooded with conscripts
and not long afterward the draft was canceled.
John stayed with the
Galloways through the winter months until March 1, 1864, when he boarded
a train in Pardeeville and headed for Canada West, now the Province
of Ontario. He was now free to answer the call of the wilderness.
I went off on the first of my long lonely excursions, botanizing in
glorious freedom around the Great Lakes,"  he said.
It is often
stated in the literature that John Muir was a draft dodger and much
has been made of this so-called "fact." I believe this article
clarifies the record.
It is evident that John's brother Dan went to
Canada to avoid being drafted. It is equally evident that John did
not go to Canada earlier for that same reason. To the contrary, John
had studiously stayed home in Wisconsin and kept track of the draft
calls. It cannot be said that he was a draft evader and it is not appropriate
to label him as such.
1. Annie Muir to John Muir, November,
1862, John Muir Papers.
2. John Muir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965), pp. 218, 219.
Mattern Soldiers When They Go (Madison: State Historical Society of
Wisconsin for the Department of History, University.of Wisconsin, 1981).
Note: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin has been renamed Wisconsin
4. Ezra Slocum Carr, untitled and undated article,
Wisconsin Historical Society archives.
5. James Davie Butler, "The
Early Decade of Wisconsin University," The Badger, 1890, Wisconsin
Historical Society archives.
6. John Muir to Frances Pelton of Prairie
du Chien, Fall, 1861, Pelton Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society archives.
8. Anne Muir to John Muir, March 1, 1863, John Muir Papers.
10. William Frederic Bade, The Life and Letters of John Muir,
Manuscript Edition, (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company,
1923). Vol 9, p. 114.
Millie Stanley is the author of The
Heart of John Muir's World, Prairie Oak Press, Madison, 1995.
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