Was John Muir a Draft Avoider?

By Brian Larkin

John Muir departed from Wisconsin bound for Canada on 1 March 1864, days before the third draft of the US Civil War was called on 10 March. Opinion is divided as to whether, in going to Canada he intended to avoid the draft, as did many other men including his younger brother the previous year. To be clear, Muir was not a “conscientious objector” as such.

John Muir by Carleton Watkins, c1875

There was no option for draftees to gain exemption as COs. Muir’s name was not called in the draft and therefore he did not evade the draft. Moreover, Muir did not explicitly state in any extant letters or other writings that his purpose in going to Canada was to avoid the impending draft. But it cannot be asserted conclusively, as some writers have, that, in going to Canada, Muir did not intend to avoid the draft.

Muir remained in Wisconsin through two calls of the draft, as Millie Stanley has pointed out; but in claiming that he was not a “draft evader” Stanley ignores the fact that he left the country just nine days prior to the 10 March. Furthermore, Stanley and Harold Wood, writing on the Sierra Club website, also overlook other significant evidence that suggest that his reasons for going to join his brother in Canada may have included avoiding the imminent third call of the draft.

Harold Wood argues that John Muir was not a “draft dodger” or “draft avoider”. If “draft dodger” is taken to mean a person who leaves the country after being drafted, Wood is correct, as Muir was never drafted. But his conclusion that Muir did not intend to avoid the draft is debatable. It seems that Wood wants to claim Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, as a law abiding American who was scrupulously determined to do his duty. This is evident from Wood’s use of the term “draft dodger” and his characterization of the assertion that he avoided the draft as an “allegation”.  While the term “allegation” can mean simply “to assert without proof” it is most often used to refer to the unproven assertion of commission of a crime. Wood means to demonstrate that Muir was no criminal – and thereby protect the reputation of the founder of the Sierra Club. In the American political environment draft avoidance is widely considered unpatriotic. It may be seen to be desirable to protect the reputation of the largest environmentalist organisation in the United States by challenging any notion that its founder avoided military service. But any assessment of Muir’s actions should aim to uncover the truth not to serve an agenda, however well-meaning that may be.

Wood suggests that “there may be some fine distinctions to be made here”. He cites Scott Cameron, of the Canadian Friends of John Muir, who concludes that, while John Muir was not a “draft dodger” he was a “draft avoider”. For clarity it is of course important to distinguish between those who did not report for duty when drafted and those, like Daniel Muir who left the country in order to avoid the prospect of being drafted. Those who were drafted could apply for a medical exemption, pay for commutation, or provide a substitute. Of the 777,000 men who were called up for the draft during the US Civil War, the 161,000 who simply did not turn up when called up were illegal draft evaders, who Wood seems to mean when he refers to draft “dodgers”. 87,000 were legally exempted by paying $300 (commutation), while 46,000 provided substitutes. These numbers represent more than 38% of those drafted who avoided serving by one way or another, more than half of them illegally. (Levine, p. 820) But there were also large numbers who, like Daniel Muir, left the country in anticipation of the possibility of being drafted, knowing that, if they were called up and did not turn up they were likely to be arrested by the Army and forced into uniform against their will. Anyone who went to Canada with the purpose of avoiding the draft, whether after being called up or in anticipation of that, should be reckoned as a “draft avoider” or war refuser. Wood concludes citing Millie Stanley (The Heart of John Muir’s World) that it “cannot be said that John Muir was a “draft evader”. If by draft “evader” Stanley means that John Muir was not called up for the draft that is correct. Nonetheless the evidence suggests that Cameron was right and that John Muir did intend to avoid the imminent draft when he departed for Canada.

Wood’s use of the term “allegation” implies a belief that both draft dodging and draft avoiding would be disreputable if not criminal. But, if Muir did intend to avoid the draft by going to Canada that would not in itself be illegal. Even if he had been drafted, it may be that Muir would have remained within the law as he was not actually a US citizen. Canada was a Territory of Great Britain in 1864. Having been born in Scotland John Muir had a right to go there to live and work as he did. John Muir did not claim US citizenship until he was in his 50’s and then only for practical reasons to do with travel. (Linnie Marsh Wolfe, Son of the Wilderness)

Draft evasion was significantly higher amongst immigrant communities, including in Wisconsin, where many people did not feel an allegiance that bound them to risk their lives for the Union. (Levine) There is evidence that several members of the Muir family held such views. Muir’s brother Daniel was sent to Canada by his parents. In a letter to John Muir his sister wrote “How glad I am that you’re not drafted” and “I think that those that began this war ought to be the only men to fight.” (Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, p.41)

More importantly Muir himself considered war to be stupid, ugly, monstrous, and a human disaster.  In a letter home in the fall of 1861 Muir wrote: “I suppose you know by the papers how warlike things are here.” “…how can all the great and showy coverings of war hide its real hideousness.” A year later he wrote “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.” Again, Muir wrote: “War is the farthest reaching and most infernal of all civilized calamities.” (“Remembered Yesterdays” by Robert Wood Johnson as cited by Wolfe.) In these statements Muir meditates on the great contradiction of the making of war by what he considered to be an otherwise civilized society, seeing it as an aberration, inconsistent with both Christianity and the values inherent in education.

One might also imagine that John Muir’s thinking on the question of whether to comply with the draft was developing as he encountered the reality of the war. The County Fair Ground, adjacent to the University campus where he roomed in a dormitory, was taken over by the Army as Camp Randall. One of the activities of the soldiers based there was to enforce conscription by rounding up draftees who had not reported. In Son of the Wilderness Linnie Marsh Wolfe recounts that John visited soldiers in Camp Randall regularly during these months and that he was appalled by the wounded brought there from the bloodbaths at Gettysburg and other battles. She describes him as providing pastoral care to the new recruits, advising them as to how to adjust themselves to the spiritual difficulty of being involved in war, and the possibility of facing death.

Millie Stanley writes: “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.”

As Stanley says, Muir did not avoid the first and second rounds of the draft and there is clear evidence that he kept track of the draft. In a letter to his brother Dan 20 Dec 1864 he stated that “A draft was being made when I should have been going to Ann Arbor which kept me at home.” Stanley’s conclusion that John intended to submit to the draft should he be called up seems right, for that time frame. Given his awareness of the draft, and his own reference to the news about it in “the papers” Muir almost certainly would have been aware that this third call was scheduled to take place in March. John Muir may have stayed in Wisconsin in case he was called up in 1863, as Stanley maintains but, after witnessing the horrible impact of war on the young men he visited at the County Fairground, he may have finally made up his mind to go to Canada, in part at least, to avoid the impending draft. If he had continued to hold the conviction that he should report for duty in that event why did John depart for Canada just days before the third draft was to be carried out?

Muir would have had peers who were avoiding or evading the draft. Wisconsin was one of the states where draft evasion was highest, and there was a significant increase in the numbers of men who illegally evaded the draft across the Norther states with the third call up in 1864. (Levine, p.822, 825) According to the Wisconsin Historical Society “Wisconsin’s drafts were relatively ineffective in enrolling additional men for military service. For example, the 1864 drawing drafted 17,534 men; only 3,439 were actually mustered into service. More than 6,700 claimed exemption from service, and over 7,000 men simply failed to report for duty.”

In the 20 Dec 1864 letter to his brother Dan Muir John wrote that he “intend(ed) 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.” Harold Wood concludes from this that Muir went to Canada in hopes of getting a better rate of exchange so that he might make the hoped for trip to Scotland, not to avoid the draft. Those seem to be among his reasons for going. There is no reason however that he could not have intended, when he did leave for Canada, both to make the trip to Scotland and to avoid the draft. People can have more than one purpose in mind when they make such choices.

The statement that he might go to Scotland “if not drafted” does not demonstrate that he was waiting to be drafted. It could be read simply as an expression of the fear that that might happen before he could get sufficient resources together to make the journey.

John Muir, Conservationist, by Francis M. Fritz

Muir goes further than just reflecting on the horror of war when he considers his own response to the draft. In a letter sent to his brother in Canada just two and a half months before leaving the country John writes: “War is now casting its terrible harvest through all this unhappy land. Drafting is becoming more (and) more severe. (W)e sometimes wish that we could all be with you. I have not money enough to stay long in Scotland. I hardly know what to do. War seems to spread everywhere. (I)t seems difficult for a peaceable man to find a place to rest”. (Letter from John Muir from Old Fountain Lake on 20 Dec. 1863 to brother Daniel. University of California Calisphere.)

When he says, “I hardly know what to do. War seems to spread everywhere. (I)t seems difficult for a peaceable man to find a place to rest” Muir is referring to himself as “a peaceable man” for whom it is “difficult” to “find a place to rest” suggest that he is struggling with the moral dilemma of what to do. Should he stay, or should he go? Stephen Fox maintains that Muir “was paralysed by the threat of conscription. With few eligible men still in Marquette Co. he might be taken at any time.” Fox concludes “In February (1864) Lincoln signed an order for a draft of five hundred thousand men to be carried out on March 10. Rather than risk it, Muir decided to join (his younger brother) Dan in Canada.” Stanley and Wood overlook John’s stating “I hardly know what to do” and “(I)t seems difficult for a peaceable man to find a place to rest”. What could his statement “I hardly know what to do” mean other than that John was considering various possibilities, among them, to withdraw to Canada and wait out the war?

His departure on 1 March suggests that he finally made up his mind to find a peaceful place to get on with his life, beyond the reach of US law and thus from the necessity of having to comply with the increasingly “severe” draft.

The conclusion that John Muir did intend to avoid the draft is supported by a letter from John’s brother Daniel to their sister-in-law, written from Canada in 1864. Fox points out that Daniel Muir states clearly that John and his other brother David had also gone to Canada to avoid the draft.  “I am sorry that John and David have had to leave home” (Daniel) Muir wrote his sister, “but it is better that they go down to sojourn in this American Egypt than to fight American Philistines.” Here, Daniel clearly refers to Canada as a “this American Egypt” meaning a land of exile to which they had fled, as did the Israelites, but in their case in order to avoid fighting the “American Philistines”. This seems to be the strongest piece of clear evidence by the hand of his brother, that John Muir had gone to Canada in order to avoid the draft.


We do not have a letter or a statement from John Muir to prove that, in departing for Canada on 10 March 1864 he intended to avoid the draft. The evidence presented here however, has shown that is likely to have been among his reasons for going at that particular time. The date of his departure was just nine days prior to the third draft which had been ordered by Lincoln in February of that year. With few remaining eligible men in Marquette County the chances of his being called up were high. Muir was almost certainly aware of the imminence of the third draft. His brother had already gone to Canada to avoid the draft and other members of his family supported that course of action. Draft avoidance was at its highest with the third call of the draft and particularly so amongst immigrant families and in Wisconsin. More than half of those called up in Wisconsin simply did not show up. In Muir’s own words written not three months before departing for Canada he was “a peaceable man” who  “hardly knew what to do” in the face of the draft and who was looking for “a place to rest”. Muir’s brother refers to him as being in exile and better off not fighting.

At the very least John Muir never volunteered. He had concern for and ministered to those who were drafted, and denounced war as “the farthest reaching most infernal of all civilized calamities”. According to Wolfe, later in life Muir remarked: “That’s how most wars end. .. They start talking about honour or something.. a boys war – a big boys war. No sense in it!” Here, calling those who make war immature, Muir brings sees war in opposite terms to the dominant view of it as heroic and masculine, an analysis which was to be taken up by later generations of anti-war activists and peace campaigners from the anti-war movement over Vietnam to the women of Greenham Common.

John Muir does not fit into the category of “conscientious objector”, draft “dodger” or draft “evader”. But the evidence points strongly to his being a draft avoider and conclusively to his “opposing war”. War resisters often have made significant contributions to society. Had John Muir been killed or, like so many of his peers, lost an arm or a leg in the Civil War he never would have been able to make that Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf or wandered endlessly in the Sierra, and, likely we never would have had a Yosemite National Park, for the enjoyment of all. Muir might never have lived to form the Sierra Club or to “Do something for wilderness and make the mountains glad.”


Fox, Stephen, John Muir and His Legacy, Little, Brown, 1981

Stanley, Millie. The Heart of John Muir’s World. Madison: Prairie Oak Press, 1985.

Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. Son of the Wilderness. The Life of John Muir.  University of Wisconsin Press. 1945.

“Draft Evasion in the North during the Civil War, 1863-1865”. Peter Levine. The Journal of American History. Vol. 67, No. 4 (Mar., 1981), pp. 816-834. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1888051.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A6655903af94ad02bcfe4e6125f2b39b4

“Was John Muir a Draft Dodger?” Harold Wood. https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/was_john_muir_a_draft_dodger.aspx#6

“Civil War Draft Drum”, Wisconsin Historical Society. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS2664

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