Archives For Justice

Saved by a Misspelling

September 9, 2019 — 7 Comments

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.

Undue Honor

April 16, 2014 — 9 Comments

orphan flightHow should we respond when someone else receives all of the praise and accolades for something we actually accomplished? I confess my natural, human reaction is to resent them for it. The example of one outstanding Korean War chaplain, however, clearly reveals how it is much more noble to simply reject resentment and move forward in life.

This column continues a story introduced in my last post, so if you missed it, you may find it helpful to pause and read that piece before continuing. It’s available here.

In discussing the plight of the orphans during the Korean War, I mentioned the name of Chaplain Russell Blaisdell. He and his ministry partner, Staff Sergeant Mike Strang, saved nearly a thousand orphans during a single heroic action in December of 1950.

The full story of the Kiddy Car Airlift can be found on the website of the Korean War Children’s Memorial.

Here are the highlights. For months Chaplain Blaisdell and Sergeant Strang had been rescuing homeless children from the streets of Seoul. Due to the rapid advance of Communist forces, the fall of the capital city became imminent.

The military was rapidly attempting to redeploy its assets, to minimize the resources which were destined to fall into the hands of the enemy. Transporting noncombatants to safety fell far down the long list of urgent missions. The children were nonessential. To everyone, that is, except these two men.

The details of their heroic effort are the stuff of movies. And a movie that included this great escape was indeed made. The only problem is that it did not reflect the true story, and neither of the true heroes received their due.

The story of this injustice is related online here. Briefly, another Air Force officer, a pilot who assisted Blaisdell with finding quarters for the refugees behind friendly lines, received the credit due to the ministry team. So, exactly how did this travesty come about?

Colonel Dean Hess wrote a book, entitled Battle Hymn. It sold well, and included many significant actions in which the author had presumably been directly involved. However, the most significant event, in which he was involved only indirectly, was a focal point of book and its subsequent film (starring Rock Hudson, no less).

Only in very recent years, and unfortunately after Strang had died, has the story been set straight. Blaisdell has received overdue recognition from the Air Force and the Republic of Korea. Strang’s recognition has necessarily been posthumous.

Dr. George Drake wrote an article on this unfortunate tale, and although he entitles it “Hess: Fraudulent Hero,” he does offer a less critical rationale for how misperceptions may have been carried so far.

Once the movie was released it seemed impossible for Hess to say “This is not a true portrayal of what happened.” Hess had become a captive of his own earlier mis-statement of the facts of the rescue. Recently Hess has privately, but not publicly, stated that he was upset with the way the movie distorted the story of the rescue but the truth of the matter is that his concern for that distortion of the facts did not prevent him from accepting the honors due someone else.

Drake reproduces correspondence between Strang and Blaisdell related to the matter. In 1957, Strang wrote his friend about having dinner with Hess in California, in the hopes that he might get a role in the film. “I went out there and he met me one night for dinner and asked me a few questions about what happened on Kiddy Car Operation and I never heard from him after that, as a matter of fact I called him any number of times and he never even had the courtesy to return my call or even leave a message for me.”

Blaisdell’s response brings us back to the question with which I began this column. Based on how the two of them had been overlooked, and especially in light of Strang’s disappointment at failing to get a break in a hoped for civilian career, what should the two of them do? Blaisdell took the high ground and wrote to his comrade in arms:

In regard to doing anything about it, I have decided in the negative. Although I agree with you in principle, the goal of our efforts, in regard to the orphans and also in the evacuation of the Koreans by convoy, was the saving of lives, which would otherwise have been lost. That was accomplished.

In a sense, Mike, well-doing has its own reward, which is not measured in dollars, prestige, or good will . . . This does not mean that I would not be willing to state the facts as they existed to anyone who might properly request them to substantiate your story.

Strang joined his chaplain on the high moral ground, and did not create a scandal. I hope that, had I been in their combat boots, I would have joined them there.

There is something quite alluring about fame. Not everyone is vulnerable to it—we all have our own weak links in our personal armor—but many are. Writers, I suspect are particularly susceptible to the wounds pride and renown can inflict. After all, who among us who writes does not desire a large audience? (Or at least a small but clearly “devoted” one.)

Even C.S. Lewis was not impervious to the assault of fame. In a letter to his friend Don Giovanni Calabria, Lewis describes how personal concerns prevented him from doing much writing at the time. With great personal insight and wisdom, he adds that this may not be such a bad thing.

As for my own work, I would not wish to deceive you with vain hope. I am now in my fiftieth year. I feel my zeal for writing, and whatever talent I originally possessed, to be decreasing; nor (I believe) do I please my readers as I used to. I labour under many difficulties. . . .

These things I write not as complaints but lest you should believe I am writing books. If it shall please God that I write more books, blessed be He. If it shall please Him not, again, blessed be He. Perhaps it will be the most wholesome thing for my soul that I lose both fame and skill lest I were to fall into that evil disease, vainglory.

Like Lewis, we are well served when we ponder the effects of fleeting fame and worldly success on our lives and souls. And, like Strang and Blaisdell, we should carefully weigh our own motivations whenever we desire to seize the recognition we believe we deserve.

orphan airliftAfter all, in the end what is untrue will be dispelled like the morning mists . . . and when that bright Light shines upon us all, only what is true and selfless will glow with the reflection of God’s own glory.