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Was John Muir a Draft Dodger?

by Harold Wood

Over the years, it is often incorrectly repeated by those with only a casual knowledge of John Muir that he must have been a draft dodger during the U.S. Civil War since he spent the last year of the war in Canada.

This allegation is thoroughly discredited by the historical record. The experts at the National Park Service John Muir National Historic Site note that Muir was not a draft dodger because his name did not appear on any list of draftees, and while in Canada he often wrote home to see if he had been drafted.[1] Even earlier, while still living in Wisconsin, in a December 20, 1863 letter to his brother Daniel, then in Canada, Muir wrote: "I intend if not drafted to go to Scotland in the spring." [2] As Scotland Muir expert Will Collin points out, Canada as an alternate destination was only a possibility at that time if it offered a better exchange rate and an easier departure point. Relationships with his father had not improved and at the time of writing to Daniel he was living with his sister Margaret and her husband John Reid while his mother lived in Portage.

In fact, the Civil War began in 1861, but Muir did not travel to Canada until 1864. Muir left the University of Wisconsin in 1863, returning home to Fountain Lake in Wisconsin to await being drafted.

When his name was not called for the draft by 1864, Muir left for Canada on March 1, 1864 to botanize and pursue his inventions. As Will Collin writes, "Another theory is that this was the first step on a journey back to Scotland. The letter would appear to put an end to the 'draft dodger' hypothesis and provide proof that John was intending to return to Scotland but only if he was not drafted in the meantime."

In any case, Muir's time in Canada was an important one for him. There, he worked at Trout's sawmill and broom and rake factory at Meaford, Ontario, where he was offered a partnership. In his botanical explorations in Ontario, he sought out the rare orchid, The Calypso borealis, the subject of his first published writing. Once in Canada,Muir continued writing home to ask if he had been drafted. Under the Union draft act men faced the possibility of conscription in March, July, and December 1864 as well as in 1863. [3]

Muir would not, however, volunteer to go to war. Doubtless he felt no obligation to volunteer, as he was not a U.S. citizen at that time. (He only became a U.S. citizen many years later.) Moreover, John Muir understood first hand what any honest examination of history reveals: "War is the farthest reaching and most infernal of all civilized calamities." [4]

The conclusion that Muir want to Canada to pursue botany and his inventions, rather than to avoid the draft, is corroborated by recent Muir scholarship. The late Millie Stanley, the author of The Heart of John Muir's World (Madison: Prarie Oak Press, 1985), and the foremost historian of Muir’s Wisconsin years, explored this time in Muir’s life very carefully. After reviewing the evidence exhaustively, she emphatically states:

“It is evident that Muir’s brother Dan went to Canada to avoid being drafted. It is equally evident that John did not go to Canada earlier for the same reason. To the contrary, John had studiously stayed home in Wisconsin and kept track of the draft calls. It cannot be said he was a draft evader and it is not appropriate to label him as such.” [5]


[1]. See Most Often Asked Questions at the John Muir National Historic Site , Question Number 14.

[2].Letter from John Muir from Old Fountain Lake on 20 Dec 1863 to brother Daniel. University of California Calisphere. At the foot of the fifth page and on to the sixth page, John Muir writes, “I have worked hard in harvest this summer and built John Reid’s house over the hill from fathers, also I plowed for John about two weeks, I am splitting cordwood and rails for stove [Dave] this winter and studying French Latin and Anatomy also Scottish history and manners, as I intend if not drafted to go to Scotland in the spring, I would have gone last fall but gold was fifty per cent, How much is gold in Canada payable in greenbacks. If I can get British currency cheaper by going to Canada and taking ship there I may see you. I wish Dan that you [and] I had money enough to go together. I did not go to Michigan because I thought it would cost a good deal to get a start there and I might be drafted almost as soon as I went. You speak of home. I know exactly how you feel Dan, but if you were here you would soon wish yourself away again even though there was no war. You are much better where you are if you can only make out to go to school most of the time. Father and I cannot agree at all I could not live at Hickory Hill a single week hardly My advise is to rest as contentedly as possible where you are prepare yourself for future usefulness by the culture and discipline of your mind, and rest assured of the hearty sympathy and love of all your friends."

[3]. Conscription (Military Draft) In The Civil War - As this site makes clear, the Civil War draft, the first applied nationally in the United States, was vastly unpopular, and in fact only a very small percentage of civil war soldiers were draftees.

[4]. Wolfe, Linnie Marsh, Son of the Wilderness , pg 17, 68, 90; Fox, Stephen, John Muir and His Legacy, pg 42, 43 )

[5]. See: John Muir and the Civil War by Millie Stanley, University of the Pacific, John Muir Newsletter, Fall, 2002

Harold Wood is the curator of the John Muir Exhibit and Chair of the Sierra Club John Muir Education Committee.

April, 2011

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