William Beltz’s Painful, Disfiguring Civil War Back Injury

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William Beltz’s hunched back

His fragile back horribly distorted by a Civil War injury, William Henry Beltz bore the appearance of a hunchback for the rest of his long life, worsening as time went on. Born near Schellsburg, Bedford County, PA, he was the son of Lewis Beltz and stepson of Matilda (Comp) Beltz.

The slightly built William stood 5 feet, 2 inches tall in adulthood and weighed 123 lbs. After the Civil War broke out, he joined the Union Army, enlisting on his 17th birthday and was placed within the 55th Pennsylvania Infantry. In the spring of 1864, he saw action at the battles of Petersburg, Cold Harbor and Drewry’s Bluff, all near Richmond. While carrying heavy loads of ammunition in his knapsack one day, his undersized frame could not bear the weight, and his spinal column shifted out of place, causing debilitating pain. He “broke down completely” later that year and was admitted to Hampton Hospital at Fortress Monroe, where he spent the remainder of the war there.

In June 1868, back at home, he applied for and was awarded a military pension. John A. Livingston, his former company commander, wrote that “if any man in the country deserves a pension that man is William H. Beltz.” He and his wife Isabella moved to the Hazelwood section of Pittsburgh, where he taught penmanship, oratory and dramatic art in the city schools. He authored “True to the Flag,” which the Braddock Herald once said was “a play that lays hold of the motions and you must laugh and can’t help but cry.” In 1908, he spoke at a church event, reciting his poem, “The Battle of Cold Harbor,” which the Connellsville Daily Courier noted “was highly appreciated by everyone present. The house was filled.”

As the years progressed, William suffered increasingly from spinal pain. It was the equivalent, he claimed, of having lost a hand or foot, rendering him unable to perform manual labor. Physicians noted that the spinal column fully three inches out of alignment which caused his left lung to collapse. His condition was photographed from time to time, with the images provided to the government as further proof of his disability. This image, found in his pension file, was provided courtesy of the National Archives in St. Louis. More>>>

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