“It was the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard—even a mortal exhausted and unnerved by two days of hard fighting, without sleep, without rest, without food and without hope.”
– Ambrose Bierce, “A Little of Chickamauga” (1898)
“…a shrill ringing scream with a touch of the Indian war-whoop in it .”
– London Times reporter William Howard Russell (1861)
“…a foxhunt yip mixed up with sort of a banshee squall.”
– Historian Shelby Foote (1990)
The secessionist battle cry has long captivated Civil War scholars. A fixture of literature as well as eyewitness accounts, its actual sound was a matter of conjecture. It lent itself to colorful description. Phonetic renderings could not hope to reproduce the chilling effect:
“Yee-aay-ee!” -Margaret Mitchell
“Wah-Who-Eeee!” -Chester Goolrick
“Rrrrrr-yahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip!” -H. Allen Smith
Of course, the Rebel Yell is far from the only sound to have struck a note of dread during The Civil War. Hoofbeats, the crackle of flames, a white voice commanding you to leave your hiding place…
By the time the harmless-looking grandpas in the archival footage above donned their old uniforms to demonstrate the yell, the war had been over for sixty-five years.
There’s a clear sense of occasion. The old fellows’ pipes are impressive, though one begins to understand why there was never consensus regarding the actual sound of the thing.
Linguist Allen Walker Read concluded that the yell—aka the “Pibroch of the Confederacy,” a vocal legacy of blue painted Celtic warriors facing down the Roman army—was a stress-related, full body response. Ergo, any hollering done after 1865 was a facsimile.
At least one veteran agreed. In Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary, Shelby Foote recalled how one of them refused to oblige eager listeners at a society dinner, claiming he could only execute it at a run, and certainly not with “a mouth full of false teeth and a belly full of food.”
(An assertion several legions of grey coated reenactors clearly do not support.)
My 14-year-old son was greatly amused by the coyote-like ululations of the old gents. The variety of interpretations only heightened his enjoyment. Their proud demonstration is undeniably reminiscent of Patrick Stewart’s take on the regional variations of mooing British cows.
I had to remind my boy that this was once a serious thing. To quote Henry “Dr. Livingston, I Presume” Stanley, who participated in the Battle of Shiloh as a 21-year-old enlistee on the Southern side:
It drove all sanity and order from among us. It served the double purpose of relieving pent-up feelings, and transmitting encouragement along the attacking line. I rejoiced in the shouting like the rest. It reminded me that there were about four hundred companies like the Dixie Greys, who shared our feelings. Most of us, engrossed with the musket-work, had forgotten the fact; but the wave after wave of human voices, louder than all other battle-sounds together, penetrated to every sense, and stimulated our energies to the utmost.
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