Watch Veterans of The US Civil War Demonstrate the Dreaded Rebel Yell (1930)

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Civ­il War and Recon­struc­tion,” a New MOOC by Pulitzer-Prize Win­ning His­to­ri­an Eric Fon­er

Visu­al­iz­ing Slav­ery: The Map Abra­ham Lin­coln Spent Hours Study­ing Dur­ing the Civ­il War

Down­load 78 Free Online His­to­ry Cours­es: From Ancient Greece to The Mod­ern World

Find cours­es on The Civ­il War in our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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  • SimplyFred says:

    Will we ever see doc­u­men­taries on the num­ber of white south­ern farms burnt to the ground by abe lin­col­n’s ‘sol­diers’? Will we ever see doc­u­men­taries on the rape of white south­ern women by abe lin­col­n’s ‘sol­diers’?

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