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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. The allegation that John Muir was a draft dodger is thoroughly discredited by the historical record. In fact, the timelines of Muir's sojourn in Canada, the published lists of draftees, and his correspondence with family at the time, show that he was not a draft dodger.

On March 3, 1863, Congress passed the Enrollment Act,12 Stat. 731, also known as the Civil War Military Draft Act, in response to the need to swell the ranks of the Union army. The law subjected all able-bodied male citizens, and "persons of foreign birth who shall have declared on oath their intention to become citizens" between the ages of twenty and forty-five to the draft. However, the Civil War draft was very unpopular among recent immigrants regardless of which country they were from, but especially among German immigrants, who had left their homeland to escape compulsory military service. Evasion and overt resistance to the draft was huge, including rioting in not only New York City, but in several places in Wisconsin where Muir had spent his boyhood. Nonetheless, the vast majority of troops were volunteers; of the 2,100,000 Union soldiers, about 2% were draftees, and another 6% were substitutes paid by draftees. The Enrollment Act of 1863 allowing draftees to pay $300 to a substitute who served for them. According to Wikipedia, until mid-1864 draftees could even avoid service by paying commutation money. Many eligible men pooled their money to cover the cost of any one of them drafted. Families used the substitute provision to select which member should go into the army and which would stay home. Probably the cost was too much for Muir's family to cover. But for those in a position to do so, including John D. Rockefeller, and Grover Cleveland, future president of the United States, the draft was avoided by paying for a substitute to serve for them. Clearly, the idea of "draft dodging" did not have the stigma it seems to have today.

In any case, of the 168,649 men procured for the Union Army through the draft, 117,986 were substitutes, leaving only 50,663 who had their personal services conscripted. In Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society, in the end, of the 4,537 Wisconsin men actually drafted, only 1,739 were mustered in. More than a third failed to report, and among those who did, most were discharged or released for various reasons. Only 6,812 Wisconsin soldiers reported to duty of the 38,495 called. So, if Muir had intended to avoid the draft, he would have been in good company.

It does appear that Muir believed he was subject to the draft, even though he had not applied for citizenship himself, because his father Daniel Muir had become a naturalized citizen when Muir was still a minor.

In any case, it was more than a year after the national draft was adopted that the 25-year old Muir left for Canada - on March 1, 1864. During that entire time and aftewards, his name was never called for the draft. And he stayed for nearly a year after the draft and the Civil War was over; he might have stayed forever but for a tragic fire.

Just before he boarded the train for Canada, he wrote to his friend Emily Pelton in a short note dated March 1, 1864, "I am to take the cars in about an hour. I really don't know where I shall 'halt.' I feel like Milton's Adam and Eve - 'the world was all before them where to choose their rest.' Write to Midland soon. I have already bidden all my friends good bye. I feel lonely again." But it turned out that Muir's time in Canada was an important one for him. It was the first time he lived for any length of time away from his father, and he had opportunities to talk openly about the universe with young men and women his own age. His work at Trout's sawmill and broom and rake factory at Meaford, Ontario, showed he could make a profitable career with his talent for inventions. In his botanical explorations in Ontario, he sought out the rare orchid, The Calypso borealis, the subject of his first published writing.

In 1863, after the March 3rd adoption of the first draft in American history, requiring every man to serve in the army (unless he could furnish a substitute or pay the government $300), John Muir's brother Daniel left Wisconsin and headed east to Southern Ontario, then known as "Canada West." In July of 1863, there were violent riots in New York City in protest of the draft, and the draft was unpopular throughout the northern states, especially among recent immigrants. John left the University of Wisconsin, which was suffering from the war, some time after the end of the term in June, 1863. Intending at first to attend medical school at Anne Arbor, Michigan, Muir explained to a friend, "A draft was being made just when I should have been starting for Ann Arbor, which kept me at home." [Bade, The Life and Letters of John Muir, pg. 114.] Had it not been for the new enthusiasm of botany coming into his life in the spring of 1863, he would undoubtedly have entered the medical profession. Spending the summer on botanical rambles, John spent the fall and winter of 1863 on the old Fountain Lake Farm, where his sister Sarah and his brother-in-law David Galloway now lived.

Only later, on March 1, 1864, after he still had not been called for the draft, did John leave the U.S. to travel to the southern Ontario region. Taking the train route via Chicago, he crossed the international border at Windsor, Canada West. Then under British rule, that province would join three others in 1867 to create the Dominion of Canada and would become known as the Province of Ontario. Alighting somewhere in present southern Ontario, his purpose was to botanize and pursue his inventions. He explored the area bounded by lakes Erie, Ontario, and Huron over the following several months. He spent the spring, summer, and fall of 1864 exploring the woods and swamps, and collecting plants around the southern reaches of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay. Muir hiked along the Niagara Escarpment, including much of today's Bruce Trail. In May of 1864, he had penetrated northward as far as Simcoe County. On the 18th of that month he started on a three weeks' ramble through Simcoe and Grey Counties, walking an estimated distance of about three hundred miles. During July he was botanizing north of Toronto in the Holland River swamps, and on highlands near Hamilton and Burlington bays. In August he is again about the shores of Lake Ontario and in the vicinity of Niagara Falls, which he described as "the grandest sight in all the world." With his money running low and winter coming, he reunited with his brother Daniel near Meaford, Ontario, who persuaded him to work with him at the sawmill and rake factory of William Trout and Charles Jay. Muir lived with the Trout family in an area called Trout Hollow, south of Meaford, on the Bighead River. While there, he continued "botanizing", exploring the Escarpment, bogs, and collecting and cataloging plants.

The Civil War ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865. But Muir stayed in Meaford the rest of the summer, fall, and winter of 1865, and on into the spring of 1866. At Chirstmastime in 1865, there was a flurry of letters between him and his family in Wisconsin, where his brother Dan had already returned. In his second year at Trout Hollow, Muir contracted with the Trouts to improve the machinery, with the incentive of receiving half the economical results. By building a self-feeding lathe, he nearly doubled the output of broom handles. Muir was well on the way to a prosperous industrial future. But on the night of February 21, 1866, the factory took fire, and the sawmill and factory and all their contents were completely destroyed. Muir's first industrial career was ended abruptly. [1] Wiped out financially, he returned to the United States, nearly a year after the Civil War had ended. Before the month was over, he was seeking factory employment in Indianapolis, Indiana, and botanizing in the surrounding forests. [2]

The experts at the National Park Service John Muir National Historic Site further note that Muir was not a draft dodger because his name did not appear on any list of draftees, and while working in Meaford in southern Ontario, he often wrote home to ask if he had been drafted.[3] Under the Union draft act men faced the possibility of conscription in March, July, and December 1864 as well as in 1863.[4]

Muir's intentions in going to Canada appear to be related not to the draft, but for botanizing and the possibility of eventually going to Scotland. While still living in Wisconsin, in a December 20, 1863 letter to his brother Daniel, then already in Canada, Muir wrote: "I intend if not drafted to go to Scotland in the spring." [5] 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, as Canada was still under British rule. 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. As Will Collin writes, "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."

There may be some fine lines to draw here. Scott Cameron of the Canadian Friends of John Muir, gives the opinion "Muir may not have been a draft dodger but I am convinced he was a draft avoider. He was not called for the draft it is true, but he knew he might be if he stayed in Wisconsin for the 3rd call of the draft (that was only months away) or if he went to Michigan. His philosophy and background would clearly make him a conscientious objector. There is so much we know about him that does not fit as a soldier."

Clearly Muir would not volunteer to go to war. His parents wanted him to be with his younger brother, Dan, who when he left for Canada in 1863 was just 19 years old. Doubtless he felt no obligation to volunteer, as like most immigrants, he had no knowledge of the political issues between North and South. Howevere, it does appear that some years later Muir believed he was a citizen, by virtue of his father's naturalization, as he registered to vote in th e1896 U.S. election. When he wanted to get a passport, he was unable to locate his father's naturalization documents so Muir applied for formal naturalization from the Contra Costa County Superior Court, which was given to him on April 28, 1903. \

In any case, John Muir understood first hand - evem at his young age - what any honest examination of history reveals: "War is the farthest reaching and most infernal of all civilized calamities." [6] As early as 1862 he had written to his sister Sarah, "This war seems farther from a close than ever. How strange that a country with so many schools and churches should be desolated by so unsightly a monster." (Bade, The Life and Letters of John Muir, chapter 3. )

The conclusion seems clear that Muir want to Canada to pursue botany and his inventions, and as a launching point for further travels, rather than to avoid the draft. Recent Muir scholarship confirms this. The late Millie Stanley, the author of The Heart of John Muir's World (Madison: Prairie 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.” [7]


[1]. Rinaldo, Peter M., Nature, Nurture and Chance: The Lives of William, Edward and Peter Trout. (DorPete Press, Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. ), page 35. Other evidence exists to support this date, based on the report of a farmer who was to have his lumber cut at the Trout mill the next day. See John Muir and His Canadian Friends
by Bruce Cox.

[2]. Stanley, Millie The Heart of John Muir's World: Wisconsin, Family, & Wilderness Discovery (Madison: Prairie Oak Press, 1985),

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

[4]. 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.

[5].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."

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

[7]. 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.

Last updated: 12 January 2019

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