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A Civil War tale

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When thinking of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg is probably the first thing that comes to mind for most people.

However, some, such as Afton resident Mary McConnell, may argue that the beginning of the war, specifically the fall of Fort Sumter and the response of the 6th Massachusetts regiment, is the more fascinating part of the war.

"There's very little written about this point in time in the Civil War, the very beginning, because it got much more dramatic later on and this part of the war got overlooked," McConnell said. "The (6th Massachusetts) were the first to answer Lincoln's call for troops."

McConnell is hoping to shed a little light on the early days of the Civil War with her recently released book "Surgeon of the 'Old Sixth,'" which tells the story of her great great grandfather, Dr. Norman Smith, during the Civil War.

"He had a personal story as well as professional story to tell," McConnell said. "He has a fascinating life story, so it was really fun to write."

"Surgeon of the 'Old Sixth'" was released in October.

Norman Smith's story

Born in New Hampshire, Norman Smith always had an interest in medicine.

"He would recount a story where he would catch frogs at the pond by his house and break their legs, splint them, let them go and then try and find them again to see if they were doing okay," McConnell said.

Smith, who worked as a surgeon throughout his life in Massachusetts, suffered a lot of loss prior to the Civil War, with the deaths of four wives and four children.

Smith eventually married a fifth time; however, shortly after their marriage he was called into duty in April of 1861.

Even though Smith, who was 50 at the time, only served in the Civil War for three months he experienced a lot of firsts.

Smith part of the 6th Massachusetts, which was one for the first regiments to fight through Baltimore, Md. The battle through Baltimore resulted in the Civil War's first deaths.

Smith and his regiment were also the first to make it to Washington D.C. to defend the capital while it was under siege.

While in Washington D.C., Smith performed the first amputation in the Civil War.

"He was an interesting man," McConnell said. "He was considered the life of his regiment because of his sense of humor."

After leaving the Civil War, Smith went on to live a full life with his wife and children.

Smith ultimately died of an illness, contracted during the Civil War, that caused chronic diarrhea.

"He just wasted away," McConnell said.

A book worth writing

McConnell never knew anything about her great great grandfather until she started doing family genealogy research and she came across him.

As McConnell learned more about Smith, she decided to tell his story.

McConnell had experience writing since she had done a lot of technical writing throughout her career.

The biggest part o f writing the book, McConnell said, was researching the war and her great great grandfather.

McConnell found a number of primary sources to help with her book including newspaper articles, letters from her great great grandfather, pension records and books.

"I did not want to say anything in the book that I could not back up with a source," she said.

McConnell also found a lot of artifacts that were once owned by her great great grandfather including his Civil War pistol, revolver and sword and his surgical kit.

"Everywhere I looked I found something else and that formed this story about him," she said.

After McConnell had compiled all of her research she finally sat down to write the book,which actually turned out to be easier than she had initially thought.

"I had been thinking about it in my head for so long that at the point in time where I felt overflowed, it came out on paper quite quickly," she said. "I just felt compelled to write."

"Surgeon of the 'Old Sixth'" has been recognized nationally since it has been nominated for the Foreword's Book of the Year Awards, as an INDIEFAB finalist, in the categories of biography and war and military.

"You don't expect to get anything, let alone in two categories," McConnell said. "For me though, it's more about the fact that the story gets out there."

The INDIEFAB recipients, in 63 categories, will be chosen by 100 volunteer librarians and booksellers. The winners will be announced in June.

McConnell is already starting to think about her next writing projects,which include another historical piece and a novel.

"Writing a biography is almost easier because it follows the natural chronology of their life," she said, "but in some ways it's a lot harder because you're more constrained about how you can tell the story."

McConnell said writing "Surgeon of the 'Old Sixth'" has been a rewarding experience because she's gotten to know her great great grandfather better.

"It's really a story of a person who had a lot of loss and tragedy in his life, but had this great resilient spirit," she said. "I really feel close to him at this point in time."

McConnell's book can be found at and at her website

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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