Exploring the origins of the Ladies in White

By Kimberly Jenkins - kjenkins@aimmediamidwest.com

Amanda Pursell, who began what has now become “The Ladies of the Circle.”

Courtesy photo

White is a wonderous color that often gets overlooked when speaking of beauty. However, the Ladies of the Circle (Ladies in White) of Portsmouth beg to differ.

There’s nothing that stands out more, especially on Memorial Day at Greenlawn Cemetery, than this brilliant-white group with their bundles of flowers preparing to place those flowers at the Soldiers’ Circle in honor of all veterans.

Sandy Neal, who leads the group this year, realizes there’s a great number of people who do not know anything about them.

“We are here in Scioto County, our ranks are going down and I wish we could get more ladies involved in it,” she says. “But a lot of people don’t understand what we do. What we do — what our main thing that we do — is we all dress up in white. We go up to Greenlawn Cemetery through the parade route, and we lay down flowers in honor of all the veterans of every war. We lay the flowers in Soldiers’ Circle. We honor all veterans; we honor all past and present veterans.

”We are going to do a couple of new things this year. One of them is we are going to acknowledge our Scioto County Gold Star mother and father. The names will not be revealed until Monday’s ceremony. We honor a Gold Star every year. We do that right at the end of the program. It is given to parents of a soldier in Scioto County who has died.”

Neal spoke of another great thing that will be happening at Greenlawn Monday. She says they are having a reenactment of one of the Civil War batteries. They are going to do a program, which won’t take long. Another lady, Mary Baughman, is going to represent Amanda Pursell, who, when the Civil War or any war came up, she would get together with soldiers’ ladies in the family and they would help each other. During the Civil War, they did so because there were no men due to the war. Pursell and her group would go out and help everybody. All the women of soldiers would do it. And, basically, she’s the one who started the Ladies in White. It was called something different back then: Union Soldiers Relief Circle.

Over the years, and in that time, Neal has a photo which shows some ladies and children dressed in white — even the little boys. According to the story, on Memorial Day they would walk to Greenlawn Cemetery. They would have picnics and they would lay flowers, and in this picture she has somewhere, it was back when Offnere Street was just a dirt road. She says the photo was in a newspaper article, but she does’nt know from what.

Neal says for her personally, “My big thing — or this is what interests me the most — is if I’m not doing something for a veteran, I’m not happy. I think they should be honored a lot more than they are. And I think the children of today are missing out on a lot of history.”

To become a Lady of the Circle — and anyone can — you come the morning of the Memorial Day parade. The only requirement is that you wear a white dress, or white skirt and top (they do not wear pants), white shoes and a white hat. Neal admits there are not a whole lot of white hats out there, but you could even make one.

When Neal talks about the group’s numbers being down, she says, “Right now, due to some health issues, we are down to about 10 to 12 ladies. A lot of women think that they have to be a member of one of the American Legions, and they do not. We do not have meetings during the year. Our main part is that on Memorial Day, we honor the veterans.” Neal says it is important to her and she just wants to include more ladies.

As Neal continued to talk about Pursell, she spoke of some of the things that are included in the history of what many people believe to be the beginning of Memorial Day and the Ladies. The history is written, in part:

“It is believed that women of Portsmouth instituted Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day back in the early 1960s, and Amanda Pursell, wife of James Pursell, long a Front Street merchant and a splendid Christian gentleman, was the moving spirit in the patriotic work.”

In an article written and dated Sunday, May 31, 1931, and called “Memorial Day started by pioneer woman here,” H.A. Lorberg wrote:

“According to H.N. Johnson of Lancaster, Ohio, in 1899, he put in the results of his search into the origin of Memorial Day. He began with words that can still be used today to describe Memorial Day.

“Memorial Day has come to be a great occasion with the American people — not alone to the older ones does it bring tender memories, but a younger generation through it is learning to appreciate the patriotism and sacrifice of men otherwise revealed to them only in the pages of history.” He added that a history of its origin may be interesting.

The article continued: “In 1861, Fort Sumter was fired upon, and immediately President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to aid the government and assist in the defense of Washington. Among the first to tender their services was a well-drilled, fully equipped company of young men in Portsmouth, Ohio. The tender was accepted on April 17, 1861. Company G, 56th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was on the steamer Poland bound for Fort Donaldson via Paducah. Mrs. Amanda Pursell, a lady of means and influence in the city, realizing somewhat the privations and difficulties awaiting the boys, 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.’ The result of these words was the organization of the Soldiers’ Aid Society, with Mrs. Pursell as president, and work was begun at once.

“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 … 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. Nor when the war ended had they given up, but as late as 1900, 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 war over, neighboring towns began to pattern after the Portsmouth Mothers, and soon the practice became quite general, so much so that the G.A.R. took the matter up, 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. 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.”

This article written by Lorberg may be the proof that Memorial Day started in Portsmouth, or it may just be part of Memorial Day’s history. However, the starting of the Ladies of the Circle make this their history, and by it, they do this amazing thing each Memorial Day. As the Friends of Greenlawn Cemetery continue to work to reinstate the cemetery to its original state, this piece about these women who did what they could to honor soldiers and their families is just another part of what makes Greenlawn and Portsmouth special.


Amanda Pursell, who began what has now become “The Ladies of the Circle.”
https://www.portsmouth-dailytimes.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/28/2018/05/web1_Amanda-Pursell.jpgAmanda Pursell, who began what has now become “The Ladies of the Circle.” Courtesy photo

By Kimberly Jenkins


Reach Kimberly Jenkins at 740-353-3101 ext. 1928

Reach Kimberly Jenkins at 740-353-3101 ext. 1928