Wartime Descriptions and Uses
One of the earliest descriptions of a distinctive yell among Confederate soldiers comes from the British journalist William Howard Russell. In an article published in the London Times on July 10, 1861, he noted "the whooping and screeching sounds that pass muster in this part of the world for cheers." Russell, who was describing soldiers on the Mississippi River about sixty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, slightly modified his account in My Diary North and South (1863), recalling "a shrill ringing scream with a touch of the Indian war-whoop in it."
In a letter to his father, dated September 7, 1862, Rowland M. Hall of the 3rd New York Cavalry Regiment described a recent experience battling Confederates in North Carolina. "It is impossible to imagine anything more repulsive than the appearance of these men," he wrote, "unshorn, unkempt, dirty, thin … hungry looking, ragged, fierce. They attacked with tremendous yells lasting throughout the battle and were met by us in silence with English coolness and defeated with English vigour." An unsigned report in the January 1865 issue of the United States Service Magazine, titled "Notes on the May Campaign on the James River," mentioned what it actually called the "rebel yell": "The shrill steam-whistle was heard at intervals—a rebel ruse to make us believe their troops were arriving from the South—then about midnight a rifle-shot or two, and then a volley rang out into the clear air, followed by the dog-like rebel yell, and answered by the full-toned Union shout, pealing in our ears."
Much of what was written about the Rebel yell after the war must be considered in the context of that phenomenon. The yell became an important symbol of Confederate identity. As dictated by the tenets of the Lost Cause mythology, postwar accounts employed the Rebel yell to cast Confederate soldiers as heroic, uniquely influenced by a rural and frontier ethos, and clever enough to use noise as a weapon in their doomed attempt to overcome the Union's overwhelming advantages in men and resources. In the spirit of white reconciliation, this portrayal of the Rebel yell remained largely consistent whether being remembered by former Union or Confederate soldiers.
In Notes of a Private (1909), John Milton Hubbard, who served in the 7th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, described how a commander dealt with poorly supplied recruits: "He acted upon the principle that an unarmed man was better for the occasion than no man at all, for, if a recruit had nothing at hand but the 'rebel yell,' he could at least help to intimidate an adversary." The history of Company A, 6th Wisconsin Infantry, published in 1909, pays special tribute to the Rebel yell. "And that yell," the authors write. "There is nothing like it this side of the infernal region and the peculiar corkscrew sensation that it sends down your backbone under these circumstances can never be told. You have to feel it, and if you say you did not feel it and hear the yell you have never been there."
Veterans' accounts suggest a wide variety of uses of and responses to the yell, including instances in which Confederate veterans worried that the yell had given them too much confidence and Union veterans who attested that it had helped straighten their own spines. "The Rebel and Yankee Yells," an article by J. Harvey Dew published in Confederate Veteran in 1911, was more typical. It suggested that a singular, distinctive yell was used only when charging the enemy and its sound was a function of life as it was lived in the South, "where men often worked at some distance apart and in houses apart, but in hearing distance." This helped strengthen their voices "for high and prolonged notes. A wide range to their vocal efforts was frequently required."
Dew, a veteran of the 9th Virginia Cavalry Regiment, then attempted what wartime observers largely did not: a transcription of the Rebel yell. It "was usually preceded in reaching the very high note with the syllable 'wah,'" he wrote. "Thus: 'Wah, who—ey, who——ey, who——ey.' The first syllable was uttered with a low, short note, followed by the 'who' uttered with a very high, prolonged tone, deflecting on the 'ey.' The high note was often held on a very long expiration, giving to it a protracted tone; thus, 'Who—ey,' and so was the 'yell' kept up." Dew's quasi-scientific description contributed to the Rebel yell being cast, at least in the popular imagination, as a static, rather than fluid, phenomenon, one that reflected the South and could be imitated and afterward judged authentic or inauthentic. Many read Dew to mean that there was but one "true yell," even if, according to Craig Warren, that was not likely his intention.
In the first three decades of the twentieth century, a number of aging Confederate veterans, gathered together for reunions, recorded their versions of the Rebel yell. Audio and video of these performances are held by the Library of Congress. In 1935, at a meeting of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Charlotte, North Carolina, the veteran Thomas Alexander of the 37th North Carolina Infantry and several old comrades recorded a Rebel yell. A year earlier, Sampson Saunders Simmons of the 8th Virginia Cavalry recorded a yell for MGM Pictures that was used in the film Operator 13 (1934), starring Gary Cooper and Marian Davies. About 2008 the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond released a compact disc containing the yell of the Virginian Simmons and possibly one other man. These yells were then looped and engineered to sound as if they came from thousands of men.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rawls, S. W., III Rebel Yell. (2018, July 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Rebel_Yell.
- MLA Citation:
Rawls, S. Waite, III. "Rebel Yell." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 12 Jul. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 2, 2018 | Last modified: July 12, 2018
Contributed by S. Waite Rawls III, president of the American Civil War Museum Foundation.