Mapping Thoreau Country

Concord Battleground

Battleground at Concord, Mass., Fitz Henry Lane
Muster Day, Charles Granger

After the Revolutionary War, the militia system in Massachusetts inspired bitter complaints about the misconduct of the men who showed up anually on Muster Day (or 'Training Day'), as was required of all able-bodied male citizens until 1840.  Anti-militia sentiments were fueled in part by pacifists who believed that non-violence offered the surest way to end slavery.  Military officials also condemned the system for producing incompetent soldiers who arrived for exercises carrying cornstalks or broomsticks since they were unable or unwilling to furnish their own guns.

In The Peace Manual (1847), for example, pacifist George C. Beckwith quoted an 1826 report by "the highest officers of the militia in different sections of the country" that characterized militia assemblies "as making idlers and drunkards rather than soldiers; as attended, under the most favorable circumstances, with riot, drunkenness, and every species of immorality; as always scenes of the lowest and most destructive dissipation, where nothing was acquired but the most pernicious habits.'"  Having withstood calls for change for decades, the Massachusetts legislature finally responded in 1840 by creating an organized and, to some extent, funded force of volunteers whose arms would either be supplied by the government or purchased with state-issued bounties.

Thoreau and his brother, John, were both listed in the muster rolls for Concord in the early 1840's.  In other words, in line with his lifelong conviction that violence is sometimes necessary to combat injustice and tyranny, he apparently did not actively attempt to remove his name from the rolls, as William Lloyd Garrison, his fellow abolitionist, did as early as 1829.  We have, however, yet to find evidence to indicate whether either of the Thoreau brothers actually participated in annual exercises as required.  Instead, from various entries in Thoreau's journals, we know that he witnessed militia training in Concord on more than one occasion and, from essays such as "Resistance to Civil Government" and "Slavery in Massachusetts,"  that he came to view military service, at least in support of any existing government, as contrary to every individual's responsibility to heed a higher law.


Journal, May 27, 1857

I hear the sound of fife and drum the other side of the village, and am reminded that it is May Training. Some thirty young men are marching in the streets in two straight sections, with each a very heavy and warm cap for the season on his head and a bright red stripe down the legs of his pantaloons, and at their head march two with white stripes down their pants, one beating a drum, the other blowing a fife...Thus they march and strut the better part of the day, going into the tavern two or three times, to abandon themselves to unconstrained positions out of sight, and at night they may be seen going home singly with swelling breasts.

-- H.D. Thoreau