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John Muir and the Civil War

by Millie Stanley

(from University of the Pacific, John Muir Newsletter, Vol. 12, No. 4, Fall, 2002).
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"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." [1]

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." [2]

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." [3] 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." [4] 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." [5]

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." [6]

"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:

"I was 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." [7]

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 August.

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 forming regiments.

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 none." [8]

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:

"As 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." [9]

Anne seemed to find comfort in her walks along the river where she could forget for a time her worry over the war.

John continued 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." [10]

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," [11] 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.

3 Carolyn 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 Historical Society.

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.

7. Ibid.

8. Anne Muir to John Muir, March 1, 1863, John Muir Papers.

9. Ibid.

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.

11. Ibid.

Millie Stanley is the author of The Heart of John Muir's World, Prairie Oak Press, Madison, 1995.

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