“Excuse me, ma’am,” a weak voice said as she passed up the aisle. Kate turned around.
“Yes, sir?” she said, a pile of fresh bandages in her arms. At first, she wasn’t sure who had even spoken. The men all lay with eyes closed, but one of them shifted.
“Private Fugate, ma’am. Fifth Kentucky,” the young man said softly.
Kate moved back toward him. His right arm lay limply and misshapen at his side. As she approached, she looked at his boyish face, his cheeks too smooth to grow whiskers. How could he be in the army?
“One of our brave Kentuckians. What can I do for you, Private?” she said as she stood over him.
The young man tilted his head to the left. “I believe the good doctor is going to finish me off today.”
Kate glanced up and saw the head surgeon, Dr. Smith, standing over another man about twenty feet away.
“You mean, Dr. Smith?” she said.
The young man licked his lips and nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I believe the good doctor means to take my arm and finish me off.”
Kate squatted down. “Dr. Smith is an excellent doctor. If he is to amputate, I’m sure he believes doing so has the best chance of saving your life.”
Fugate chuckled softly. “Beggin your pardon, ma’am, but how many have had a limb taken out of here only to go out a day or two later wrapped in sheets?”
Kate rose slowly. “Private Fugate–“
“You can call me Isaac, ma’am,” he said.
“Well, Isaac, we must trust in the Lord and in the doctor. If the arm must come off, it must be because leaving it will surely be worse.”
Isaac chuckled again. “Ain’t no difference neither way, ma’am.”
Kate leaned down again and touched his left hand. “Can I do something for you before your surgery?”
Isaac cracked his eyes for just a moment–big, brown eyes. “I had thought to tell you to write to someone for me, but there ain’t no one to write to really.”
“Have you no family?”
“Oh my, you’re an orphan. From a Union state. You have have no brothers or sisters?” She squeezed his left hand.
“Well, there, we can write them,” she said. “I can do that for you first thing after your surgery.”
Isaac nodded lightly. “I expect you can. Not sure where the Fifth is now.”
“There are riders all over. I will make sure it gets to them.” She squeezed his hand again. “They must be your older brothers.”
“You can’t be more than eighteen.” She set the bandages on the cot, took one, and wiped his brow.
“Yes, ma’am. I told them I was eighteen, ma’am.”
She rubbed dirt and sweat off his face. “But you aren’t, are you?”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “Almost sixteen when I enlisted.”
“You’re just a boy,” she whispered.
He shook his head. “I was workin as a farm hand for another family. Makin my own way. Not a boy.”
Kate blinked back tears. “Of course, not,” she said. “Responsible like a man.” She tucked the bandage in his left hand. “You can use that to wipe your brow when I can’t.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
Kate thought to rise but paused. “Isaac, would you like to make your peace with God before your surgery? I could call a reverend or a priest.” He shook his head. “I could pray with you if you don’t want one of them.”
He made a slight shrug with his shoulders. “If it makes you feel better, you can pray for me.”
“It’s for you not me,” Kate said.
Isaac chuckled. “Beggin your pardon, ma’am, but you ever raise hogs?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
He licked his lips again. “When you raise hogs, you keep a breeding pair or a couple. You raise up that ole sow and get her to have babies until she cain’t no more and then it’s her turn to be dinner or go up yon to the slaughterhouse.”
“Okay,” said Kate. “I don’t follow.”
“Now her babies, well, they grow up with her, and you fatten them up. And you get em good and fat, and then one day, it’s one of them babies’ turn.”
“Sure. You come out with your knife, and you escort that hog to your slaughterin place, and you cut its throat with a razor-sharp knife and it bleeds out quick. And then you butcher ‘im.”
“I see,” said Kate.
“You ain’t supposed to do it front of the other hogs cuz they know. They don’t forget that.”
“Of course,” said Kate.
He paused and took another shuddering breath. “Now here’s the thing. You done watched that hog since it was a baby. You done fed it and kep it and kep away stuff that would hunt it. And all along you knew you was meanin to kill it.”
“Right,” said Kate.
“Now what only a few people would admit is that that old sow, after she seen it happen a time or two–a hog or two disappearin and never comin back–well, she knows what you’re up to. She also knows she cain’t do nothin about it. Oh, I mean, sometimes, there’s some squealin and the like, but she knows. And she knows that one day you’ll come for her too.”
Kate shifted her weight and held the boy’s hand again. “You’re sixteen and know all that about hogs? You kill the hogs yourself?”
“You wanna eat, you gotta do your part. That’s what Martin says all the time. Why he made me get work at another farm.”
“Of course,” said Kate. “I’m sorry. Where is all this going?”
He cracked his eyes again. “The thing is, ma’am, when the farmer come around to get the sow’s kid, the sow don’t go to her kid and say, ‘Son, have you made your peace with the farmer yet?'”
“I suppose not,” said Kate.
“And the farmer don’t say to ‘im, while he’s leading ‘im to the block, ‘You got anything you wanna say to me?’ They both know their role.”
Kate took a deep breath. “Isaac, God and a farmer and a hog and you are not the same at all.”
Isaac chuckled. “Aren’t they, ma’am?”
Kate stood. “I will pray for you, Isaac. And I will write your brothers.” She picked up the bandages. “I have to tend to other patients, but Dr. Chaupin and Dr. Smith will be along shortly, I’m sure.”
As she started to move away, Isaac said, “The hell of it is that I made it all the way through both days. Saw the worst of the fighting. Killed men. Had men killed around me. Got clipped by a random as we were in our final retreat.”
Kate paused. “That’s very unfortunate.”
“I gotta tell you, ma’am,” said Isaac with more shuddering breath. “We thought we had em whipped. Had em down by the river. But it weren’t never that close. They came across that river all night long and in the morning, they was like swarms of blue locusts crossing over a farm. Didn’t matter how many you killed, they was gonna keep acomin, ma’am. We cain’t never beat that.”
Kate looked at him. “The Lord is with us, Isaac,” she said. “Who can be against us?”
“For your sake, I hope so, ma’am.”
Kate tried to keep away from the amputation ward that afternoon, but when the doctors were finishing up, she had to run for more rags just past the area. She did not want to look and yet couldn’t stop herself. She shuddered. A stream of blood ran from the table to a tub nearby, and in the tub was the mangled arm. It had been removed at the socket, and the lifeless hand hung over the edge of the tub, almost as if aimed at her.
Isaac never regained consciousness. About two hours later, they wrapped his body in sheets and removed him.
Isaac Fugate (spelled by Kate as “Fuquette” and also spelled in various records as “Fugitt” and “Fuget”) and his two brothers were members of the 5th Kentucky, which was a part of the famed Orphan Brigade. The brigade’s name origins are still debated. The gruesome details of Isaac’s amputation are rare for Kate; though she saw astounding horrors, she rarely dwelt on them in writing. What seems to have shaken her was Fugate’s realistic view of his likely death connected to the amputation. In her record, she tried weakly to dissuade him from a negative view but had to confess that his observations were correct–very few amputees survived at her hospital. Doctors erroneously blamed Union bullets, which they asserted had been dipped in poison. Such an allegation has never been proven, though similar rumors ran throughout the South at times. Rather, the most likely reason was infection that set in after men’s woundings coupled with a lack of hygiene in the hospitals. Isaac was wounded on April 6th or 7th; his operation and death were April 24. As with the others, the young orphan’s burial location is unknown.