RALEIGH — Asa B. Forrest carried a rifle for the Union Army, a teenage soldier who never saw the South until he marched there in the service of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
He fought as a private with the Pennsylvania Infantry, following the war down to Virginia. He caught a rebel’s bullet in the shoulder at the Siege of Petersburg. He survived to see the surrender of his enemies in gray.
But the glory in Forrest’s life, the reason people remember him today, happened far from the battlefield. In 1874, he got the job of superintendent at Oakwood Cemetery – Raleigh’s Confederate burial ground.
For four decades, this Yankee soldier tended the graves of the men he’d once shot at, planting magnolias and white oaks, building archways and bridges and stone steps, turning a forsaken row of dirt mounds into a garden.
When he died in 1920, in the thick of Raleigh’s influenza epidemic, mourners turned out on an icy February day to see him lowered into the ground he had helped sanctify.
On that day, nobody mentioned the uniform he’d worn in his youth.
“He buried my children,” remarked one man at his graveside.
“He had promised to smooth the sod over my grave,” said another, much older member of the group of mourners.
It’s not certain why Forrest and his wife, both of them from Tioga County near the New York line, settled in Reconstruction-era Raleigh.
“He had friends here,” said Johanna Grimes, his great-granddaughter in Chapel Hill. “He was drawn by the landscape. He’d been in Virginia and part of North Carolina during the war. I wish we knew exactly.”
Forrest knew about flowers and trees, and he opened a nursery in Raleigh when he arrived. He practiced the landscape architecture trade that was just taking hold in 19th-century America.
At the time, cemeteries were largely neglected – Oakwood included. Weeds covered the soldiers’ plots. Dirt from their graves sat in macabre piles.
In the manner of his more famous contemporary, Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, Forrest strove to use his horticultural skills to shape Oakwood into a peaceful and soothing place. You didn’t have to know someone buried there to want to walk its hillsides. The cemetery as a whole – the rows of markers, the line of white oaks and crape myrtles, the creek running over a stone bridge – could inspire deep thought.
“Now the cemeteries are all flat, and the graves have to be close to the ground so the mowers can go over them,” Grimes lamented. “I prefer the Asa Forrest model.”
Despite this eye for landscapes, Raleigh resisted his appointment at Oakwood, only nine years after the Civil War’s end.
A group of citizens took their grievances to Gen. Robert F. Hoke, one of the state’s most decorated officers – a man who’d stood in direct line of Union bullets. Like Forrest, he’d been shot in the shoulder. He’d also captured more than 3,000 Union troops – the entire force at the town of Plymouth.
Surely the esteemed general would back the outraged citizens in their drive to keep the Northerner out of Oakwood.
But he received their petition with a stern eye and tense silence, according to a hilarious account printed in The News & Observer in 1920.
“What is the matter with this man, Forrest?” Hoke asked. “What wrong has he done?
“Why, sir, Forrest is a Yankee,” replied the crowd’s leader. “He was even wounded at Petersburg!”
“Well,” said the general, “he was a good soldier, wasn’t he?”
After a century and a half, his humble stone stands next to those of governors and generals, teens killed in crashing cars and grandfathers aged into their dotage. Veterans of a half-dozen other wars rest nearby, all of them waiting for a familiar foot to walk up and lay a flower, rescuing their names from the obscurity of passing time.
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