Teaching lessons of American Civil War
Stars and Stripes June 2, 2003
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Pete Carter can tell you anything you want to know about the Civil War — as long as you’re not a Yankee.
And as long as you call it the War of Northern Aggression.
Carter, a burly, white-bearded North Carolinian who works with the Army Corps of Engineers at Camp Zama, literally wears his passion on his sleeve.
For the past seven years, he has been a Civil War re-enactor, complete with movie appearances and a growing reputation as a living history resource for local schools.
Last week, Carter and his 16-year-old son, Teddy, a Zama High School student, pitched camp on the old Yokosuka ballfield and turned back the clock to 1863.
Clad in the gray wool uniform of a Confederate soldier, Sgt. Maj. Carter of the Army of Northern Virginia — his re-enactor alter ego — held forth on the war for a group of rapt fifth-graders from The Sullivans Elementary School.
And though his presentations are peppered with “Yankee jokes” and Southern boosterism, Pete Carter always points out the tragedy of Americans killing Americans. “The saddest thing about the war was that it was all Americans on both sides,” he told the students Wednesday. “It was father vs. son. It was brother vs. brother.”
Carter’s lessons focus mainly on the living conditions of Civil War soldiers, their battlefield techniques and the historical context of the artifacts he brings with him.
Carter and son passed around Civil War bullets, showed off dried rations and gave the kids samples of hard tack — an unappetizing lump of dried flour that was the staple of a soldier’s diet.
Pete and Teddy Carter also have traveled back to the United States, serving as extras in battle scenes for the movies “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals.”
“That was a rough one. We died twice in that one,” Carter said of two re-enacted battle scenes in “Gods and Generals.”
Carter said he’s always been fascinated by history, particularly the Civil War. He has traced at least one of his ancestors, William Carter of the 3rd Florida Cavalry, to the battle of Spotsylvania and a gravesite in New Jersey.
Pete Carter left home at the age of 17 and has lived overseas for the past 25 years. In Vietnam, he was a Navy riverboat captain. For the last five years of his Navy career, he served as a firefighting instructor at Yokosuka Naval Base. He’s worked at Camp Zama the past 10 years.
On Wednesday, Pete and Teddy also got permission from Yokosuka base officials to complete their demonstration with the firing of old muzzle-loading and black-powder rifles. While his father barked out orders, Teddy ripped open packets of gunpowder with his teeth, mashed a ramrod into the barrel, aimed into the sky and pulled the trigger. The rifle belched out smoke and a deafening roar.
The fifth-graders brought a little knowledge of their own. They spent the past month studying the Civil War.
But seeing and touching parts of that history, they said, made it all the more real.
“One of the things I learned was what the soldiers ate and what it tastes like,” said fifth-grader Ian James. “Hard tack tastes like Milk-Bones.”