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By Anne O’Connor

GROTON — What does a lawyer from Minnesota and a Civil War surgeon from Groton, Mass. have in common?

Blood. Her grandfather is his grandson. Mary McConnell heard many stories from her grandfather about Dr. Norman Smith but thought they might be more wishful thinking than reality.

“My grandfather liked to embellish things,” she said. “I had never really believed it.”

She consulted the all-seeing Google and found that not only was the family story true, there was a lot of information out there about her ancestor. After a little digging, she read some of his personal letters and saw his amputation kit.

McConnell was hooked. “This guy had a wonderful life story intertwined with the Civil War story,” she said during a telephone interview.

“It was really, really, really fun,” she said. “The more I looked, the more I found.”

The result was a book: “Surgeon of the ‘Old Sixth’: the life and times of Dr. Norman Smith and the Civil War’s 6th Massachusetts.”

Inevitably, her research led her to New England. She was able to read original documents at the Peabody Essex Library in Salem.

The writings gave her a new look at the trials and tribulations faced by the earliest warriors in the Civil War. Smith’s regiment was one of the first to respond to President Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms.

Like some of their own ancestors, the men of the Old Sixth fired the first shots of a long war. The American Revolution’s “shot heard ’round the world” was fired in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775.

The Old Sixth, 86 years later to the day, Massachusetts men suffered the first casualties of the Civil War. They were in Baltimore, during a riot on April 19, 1861.

In a visit to Groton, McConnell got her hands on the diary that Smith kept. It was safely tucked away in a box.

“It’s in great shape,” she said. “It’s really cool.”

The diary took her on her great-great-grandfather’s 90-day journey that led through Lowell, Boston, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and back. “I used it to corroborate a lot of what I have in the book,” she said.

“A good part of the Smith family ended up in California,” McConnell said.

Her grandfather, Frederick Lee Smith Jr., grew up in Groton, attended Groton School and then Brown University before moving to California and marrying.

Her research led her to an almost 90-year-old Huntington Beach woman, a great-granddaughter of Dr. Smith.

“She had his old books and had his amputation kit also,” McConnell said. In high school, she had done a history project on the surgical tools.

McConnell, in turn, was able to share the personal letters that she uncovered in a museum in Pennsylvania. “It was so meaningful to her,” she said.

The full-color book is published by Ellen Carson Publishers. McConnell named the company after a great-grandmother, a Scottish immigrant with a great love for books.

It won a total book design and a biography award from the Midwest Publishers Association. Indiefab, another publishing association, awarded the book a bronze in war and military in 2015.

It was also a finalist in the biography category.

“Surgeon of the ‘Old Sixth'” can be purchased through

Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.

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