Recently I came across a sad record from the American Civil War. It described a too-common occasion during the later years of the war—the execution of Union deserters. Yet this story was unique. One of the three men sentenced to death, was spared. And this wonder occurred because of a simple misspelling.
As we know, most misspellings are inconsequential, while others are significant, such as making a mistake with the Lord’s name.
On New Year’s Day in 1960 The Times Educational Supplement published a letter from C.S. Lewis on the subject of spelling.
Nearly everything I have ever read about spelling reform assumes from the outset that it is necessary for us all to spell alike. Why? We got on for centuries without an agreed common orthography. Most men of my age remember censoring the letters of soldiers and know that even the wildest idiosyncrasies of spelling hardly ever made them unintelligible
In the case of the Civil War deserter, the misspelled name was not significant. Everyone in the regiment knew the three guilty parties. After their initial arrests, the men had escaped from confinement, and then been recaptured. Not once, but twice.
According to the regimental history of the Sixth Connecticut Infantry, the circumstances followed a common pattern.
Volunteering having partially subsided in the State, and as the government was in need of more troops, drafting commenced in other States as well as in Connecticut. The Sixth received about 200 men in October; some were conscripts and others drafted men, as but few volunteered for the service. Their advent was not hailed with much pleasure or satisfaction by the old regiment, as they claimed that “forced” men would not fight and could not be trusted in case of an emergency.
Some were vile roughs and were frequently in the guard house; while others manifested a disposition to do their duty, and did make very good soldiers. Three of the substitutes deserted from the regiment while on picket . . . (The Old Sixth Regiment by Charles K. Cadwell)
The three deserters shared a common background, and were destined for a common fate.
[Following their first escape] they were tried for desertion before a court martial . . . found guilty and sentenced to be shot to death by musketry. They were then chained hand and foot to a post inside of the provost quarters; and, notwithstanding these precautions, together with a strong guard, they succeeded in getting away again.
They took a boat near the pier and made off; but while in Warsaw Sound near the shore, their boat grounded and they were captured by a picket boat from the gunboat Patapsco. They were very bold, ingenious men, and their skill and perseverance might have won them honor if rightly applied. The culprits were Germans by birth: privates Henry Schumaker, of Co. C, Henry Stark, of Co. E, and Gustav Hoofan, of Co. B. (The Old Sixth)
The execution was conducted in the traditional, solemn manner of the era. However, one of the condemned soldiers would survive another day.
[Two of] the prisoners were taken from their cells at about two o-clock, placed in army wagons and seated on the coffins in which they were to be buried. . . . The funeral escort, consisting of a corporal and eight men, marched to funeral music, with arms reversed.
Slowly the procession proceeded to the appointed place; the square was formed on three sides, and the victims were driven around once that all might see them and avoid their fate. They maintained a calm demeanor to all, except as they passed our regiment they took off their caps several times to their old comrades. On reaching the end of the square they were assisted to alight from the wagons, the coffins were placed on the ground, the culprits sitting down upon them while the Provost Marshal read the charges, findings and sentence.
After a short prayer by the priest they were blindfolded and their hands tied behind them and made to kneel upon their coffins, facing the center of the square. The firing party came up and were halted at six paces distant, when, at a signal from Capt. Babcock, they fired and the victims fell upon their coffins. . . . They lay just as they had fallen till the whole command marched past them on the way to camp, when they were put into the coffins and buried. (The Old Sixth)
Only two of the three deserters had perished in the fusillade that riddled their bodies. Gustav Hoofan survived. Alternative spellings in Civil War records were common. In the rosters as maintained by the National Park Service, Hoofan’s name was also spelled Hoffan and Hofen. The unfamiliarity of Hoofan’s name—combined with the mercy of a commander—were his salvation.
In the case of the [the third deserter] an error was discovered in writing his name, the name Hoofan having been written Hoffman by the Judge Advocate. Col. Duryee wishing to be merciful to the full extent consistent with duty, availed himself of this technical error and protested against his execution. This protest was allowed, and he was saved from death and ordered to return to duty with his regiment. The man was more than pleased at this announcement, but the Judge Advocate, a lieutenant of the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania regiment, was severely censured in general orders for his inexcusable carelessness and fatal error. (The Old Sixth)
I was unable to ascertain what eventually became of Private Hoofan. Apparently he completed the rest of this service commitment and returned to civilian life with a profound sense of gratitude.
C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts on Spelling
I shared above the beginning of Lewis’ letter to The Times Educational Supplement. The remainder of it is well worth reading. It is clear that he regarded the communication of information (i.e. the actual function of writing) to be far more important than the execution of arbitrary rules.
Printing houses will always have, as they have now, their own rules, whether authors like them or not. Scholars, who know the ancestry of the words they use, will generally spell them accordingly. A few hard words will still have to be learned by everyone. But for the rest, who would be a penny the worse if though and tho, existence and existance, sieze, seize and seeze were all equally tolerated?
If our spelling were either genuinely phonetic or genuinely etymological, or if any reform that made it either the one or the other were worth the trouble, it would be another matter.
As things are, surely Liberty is the simple and inexpensive ‘Reform’ we need? This would save children and teachers thousands of hours’ work. It would also force those to whom applications for jobs are made to exercise their critical faculties on the logic and vocabulary of the candidate instead of tossing his letter aside with the words “can’t even spell.”
It’s so refreshing to see that even a renowned scholar can exercise such common sense.