Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Mrs. Amanda Pursell of Portsmouth -- Thank You For Memorial Day


Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, originated in the years following the Civil War. However, it did not become an official federal holiday in 1971. Did you know that a woman from Portsmouth, Ohio, was among the first people in the United States to establish official memorials for fallen soldiers?

Mrs. Amanda Pursell's work is widely recognized as the impetus for the holiday of Memorial Day established for remembering the people who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.

Let's look at the facts.

Amanda Pursell was born at Wheeling, West Virginia, April 30, 1821. She was a daughter of Moses and Sarah (Cowles) Thompson. She was one of a family of seven children, six sisters and a brother, Dr. John Thompson. She came to Portsmouth with her parents, and on March 16, 1843, was married to James Pursell, long a Front Street merchant and “splendid Christian gentleman. He died March 22, 1856, in his thirty-ninth year.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard bombarded Fort Sumter, and immediately President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to aid the government and assist in the defense of Washington. The tender of Company G of the 56th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the first Ohio troops to answer the call of President Lincoln for volunteers, was accepted on April 17, 1861. The company was put on the steamer Poland bound for Fort Donaldson via Paduca.

A few days after their departure, Mrs. Pursell, described as “a lady of means and influence in the city of Portsmouth,” organized the first Soldiers Aid Society in the State of Ohio (also known as the “Ladies Aid Society”) and began making comforts – “clothing, lint. Etc.” – for those whom she felt would need such assistance.

Realizing somewhat the privations and difficulties awaiting the boys, Amanda called together their mothers the next week and said: “Your sons have gone to war and will soon need many things which the government is not prepared to furnish them. We must go to work and see what we can do.”

With Pursell as President of the society, work began at once. And, soon after the soldiers first engagement, the remains of the boys were sent home for burial. The first soldiers from Portsmouth were killed at the Battle of Vienna in 1861. She and her co-workers were instrumental in having public funerals, “such as had never been witnessed in southern Ohio.” The following year, the Ladies Aid Society marked May 30th as the day to place flowers on the soldiers’ graves and hold memorial services. Headed by Amanda Pursell, these ladies also raised funds for the soldiers and their families.

“On the 30th of May following, the Ladies Aid Society, headed by its president, Bible in hand - those Mothers, 30 of them – bearing flowers and other tokens of affection, repaired to Greenlawn Cemetery, and there, with the green hills of Kentucky and the azure sky as witnesses, engaged in prayer and other memorial exercises over the graves of their loved and lost. As the years of the war passed on, their exercises were annually repeated.”

Amanda Pursell is also recognized as the only woman known to have hired a man to serve in the Civil War in place of her husband. When she realized the dire need for men and being a widow with no sons of suitable age, she had her agent hire a substitute, paying $800 for him, and then sent the substitute in answer to one of the calls for volunteers. She insisted that she did not know who he was or what happened to him. She never wanted to know him or his fate.

Pursell was the mother of six children. She was a “prominent worker in Bigelow M. E. church.” It was written that “her benefactions were without stint. Her home was always open to entertain ministers, the visiting presiding elders making it convenient to accept of her hospitality, and in fact all Christian workers found a temporary haven there at her old home, at 718 4th Street.” Amanda Pursell died March 10, 1895, at the age of 73.

Long after the Civil War ended, those of the Society still living made their annual visits to the graves of those early victims of the rebellion and engaged in the same simple ceremonies. The Society also carried on in aid of the families of indigent soldiers and their orphaned children.

Neighboring towns began to pattern after the Portsmouth mothers, and soon the practice became quite general, so much so that the G. A. R (Grand Army of the Republic – veterans of the Union Army) took up the matter, and when Gen. John A. Logan was Commander-in -Chief, being a United States Senator, he secured the setting apart of May 30 as a National Memorial Day, and, as Commander, issued the proclamation calling upon the people generally to observe the day in suitable services for the soldier dead.

Later on Amanda Pursell organized the Monumental Society. The women, following the war, adopted the name of the Union Soldiers' Relief Circle, and secured the funds whereby the monument in Tracy Park was erected. The dedication took place on Decoration Day 1879, with Governor Mayes and other eminent men present.

The monument is called the “Standard Bearer.” It sits atop a tall column with a granite base decorated with drums, four cannons, and swords. The inscription reads: "In honor of/our soldiers,/The brave men who fought,/and the heroes who fell/in the war/for the preservation of/The Union/1861-1865./In Memoriam/Erected A. D. 1878.” It took 12 years to raise the money for the cost of the monument.

The statue on the top of the soldiers' monument represents John R. T. Barnes. Barnes came to Portsmouth and was a clerk for William Elden, a Front Street dry goods merchant. He was a member of the First Presbyterian Church. He was killed at Vienna, Va., and was the first man from Portsmouth to give up his life for his country. It was written of Barnes: “Thus perished in his youth one of the noble-hearted of the young men of the country. He was of honorable ancestry, of pure morals, and led a sound and upright life.”

The following composed the Union Soldiers' Relief Circle: Mrs. Amanda Pursell, Mrs. John N. Lodwick, Mrs. L. N. Robinson, Mrs. E. B. Grerue, Mrs. B. B. Gaylord, Mrs. Laura Watkins, Mrs. Charles Smith, Mrs. A. McFarland, Mrs. Henry Towne, Mrs. James Merrill, Mrs. John K. Lodwick, Mrs. T. J. Graham, Mrs. Samuel Reed, Mrs. Dan McFarland, Mrs. E. P. Pratt, Mrs. James Martin, Mrs. O. F. Moore, Mrs. Robert Lewis, Mrs. John Elden, Mrs. Eli Glover, Mrs. E. Burr, Mrs. Robert Bell, Mrs. George Johnson, Mrs. James Stephenson, Miss Emma Bell, Miss Mirian Firmstone and Miss Lizzie Glover.


Historical Sketch of the 53rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry By John K. Duke

H.A. Lorberg. “Memorial Day Started By Pioneer Woman Here: Amanda Pursell originated Decoration of Soldier Graves in May 1861.” May 31, 1931.

H.N. Johnson, of Lancaster, O. Historian for the Grand Army of the Republic, put the following result of his researches into the records of the Ohio organization.” 1899.

“Standard Bearer - Portsmouth, OH” American Civil War Monuments and Memorials.

"Standard Bearer"

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