By Monte Akers
One of the enduring legends of the War Between the States is that of the Rebel Yell. Various primary and secondary sources declare that the sound made by victorious Confederate soldiers was so singularly unique, so unforgettable, so commanding, that some federal units became demoralized and fled when they first heard it. Other, equally romantic accounts speak of Southern units competing to be the “best yelling regiment” in their brigade, or of becoming known as a “good yelling unit.” Douglass Southall Freeman, biographer of Lee and author of Lee’s Lieutenants once described it as “the pibroch of Southern fealty.” A “pibroch” is a musical piece, usually for the bagpipe, usually martial. “Fealty” refers to absolute loyalty, as that of a vassal to a feudal lord.
The Yell was best known as being shouted by Confederates when they charged or were winning a fight, but it had other uses. It is said that units would often take up “the Yell” while they were on the march, passing it from unit to unit down the road. When anyone in the pre-Chancellorsville Second Corps heard it from afar, soldiers would supposedly declare “It’s Jackson, or a rabbit.” On one occasion during the Valley Campaign, while the Stonewall Brigade was in camp, one of its five regiments began yelling. Soon another regiment took it up, and then another, and another, until every member of the entire brigade was delivering the Yell at the top of his lungs. General Jackson came out of his tent, leaned on a fence, and listened. The cacophony continued for several moments and then began dying away. When the last echo had rebounded from the Blue Ridge, old Blue-Light, universally known to be totally tone deaf, turning toward his tent and said “That was the sweetest music I ever heard.”
But what did that sweet music sound like? What was the exact pronunciation, accenting, spelling, and grammar of the Rebel Yell? Was it the “yee-haw” produced in various Civil War movies? Was it something else, something more? Was it a specific, definable, unique cry, or was it something more generic, magnified in effect and reputation by thousands of voices, the sweetness of victory, the embroidery of memory, and the veil of years?
Some attempts to describe it provide colorful description, but little clue about the actual sound, such as that by Confederate Colonel Keller Anderson of Kentucky’s Orphan Brigade:
Then arose that do-or-die expression, that maniacal maelstrom of sound; that penetrating, rasping, shrieking, blood-curling noise that could be heard for miles and whose volume reached the heavens–such an expression as never yet came from the throats of sane men, but from men whom the seething blast of an imaginary hell would not check while the sound lasted.
Equally vivid but vacuous were the words of a New Orleans Times Picayune reporter:
“It paragons description, that yell! How it starts deep and ends high, how it rises into three increasing crescendos and breaks with a command of battle.”
Somewhat more descriptive, but still unfulfilling, was the explanation given by historian Henry Steele Commager in The Blue and the Gray:
“We hear a great deal about the Rebel Yell, though no two people seem agreed on just what it was, or even on its origin. It has been variously described as “more overpowering than the cannon’s roar” and “a mingling of Indian whoop and wolf-howl.”; it was probably born on the hunting field.”
Specificity came from an unexpected source. In the mid-fifties, a humorist named H. Allen Smith went on a sort of literary Easter Egg hunt across the South, collecting different versions of the Yell from people–none veterans of the war–who were arguably in a position to know what it sounded like. The book, entitled The Rebel Yell, and published by Doubleday in 1955, was intended as whimsical satire, and it contains many anecdotes and witticisms whose ability to invoke mirth did not survive the decade. However, tucked among the cuteness are no less than nine candidates for being the Yell’s exact pronunciation.
The first–“Eee-Yow!”–came from a 1952 Time magazine article. The next–“Keeook”–was provided by a Northern scoutmaster whose only credentials were that his Panther patrol used the same cry on Boy Scout outings. Historian James Street authoritatively offered “Rrrrrr-yahhhhhhhh-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip” as the true Yell, although he was also heard to emit it as “Yeeeeeeeeeeeow!” during a post-party argument with a Chapel Hill shoe merchant over the correct sound of the Yell. The merchant claimed the true sound was “Whoooooooooooooo-wow!” In Charleston, a lawyer considered an expert on the Yell, offered “Yuhhhhh-woooooooo-eeeeeee-UH!” Douglass Southall Freeman, who should have known if anyone did, delivered it as “Yeeeeeeeeeee-ahhhhhhhhhhh!” When Smith published a newspaper article on the subject, he was challenged by the Twin City Sentinel, which claimed “Eeeeeeee-YUH-haaeeeeoooooooo.” Finally, composer Richard Bales offered “Ooooooo-eeeeeeee!”
Mercifully, someone with better credentials and experience also offered an exact spelling and pronunciation of the Yell. Colonel Harvey Dew of the 9th Virginia Cavalry, who surely heard the sound repeatedly in his war days under J.E.B. Stuart. carefully recorded it’s intonation as it was given by his regiment during a charge at the Battle of Brandy Station. Writing in an April, 1892 article in Century Illustrated Magazine, he said:
In an instant every voice with one accord vigorously shouted the “Rebel yell,” which was so often heard on the field of battle. “Woh-who-ey! who-ey! who-ey! Woh-who-ey! who-ey!” etc. (The best illustration of this “true yell” which can be given the reader is by spelling it as above, with directions to sound the first syllable “woh” short and low, and the second “who” with a very high and prolonged note deflecting upon the third syllable “ey.”)
For those of you who want to try the Dew version of the Yell at home, note that “deflect” means “to bend or turn to one side, to swerve.”
The Yell has probably been recorded many times; I am aware of only three. The first is least deserving of notice. It was done during the Civil War Centennial for an album of Southern music entitled “The Confederacy.” The composer was Richard Bales, who was one of H. Allen Smith’s demonstrators, and his “Oooo-eeeey” is contained at the end of the last tract of the album as background for the concluding strains of Dixie. It can best be described as somebody’s impression of a windy night.
A recording with better credentials came from the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. During a newsreel filming of the obligatory handshake across the wall by veterans of both sides, six or eight Confederates took up the Yell. It was sort of a high-pitched “Wa-woo-woohoo, wa-woo woohoo.” The newsreel is captured about 40 minutes into Volume II of the video “Echoes of the Blue and Gray.” It has also been recorded on the Internet and was recently circulated among members of the Stonewall Brigade of reenactors.
A third recording, possibly a fourth, is in the possession of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and consists of a wax recording located in the UDC’s national headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. The recording was either made just before the end of the 19th Century–at a Florida UDC Convention it was decided to “have the Rebel Yell preserved for posterity by means of a victrola record”–or during the 1930s. At the latter time, Hollywood approached the UDC about capturing the Yell for use in the movie “Operator 13.” A magazine article reported that the UDC obtained such a recording from a veteran in Stuart’s cavlary. However, the movie contains no Rebel Yell.
I first attempted to get the UDC to allow me to hear or copy their recording in the mid-1980s. In a series of phone calls, I was able to ascertain that the recording did exist, but I was never connected with, nor did I receive a call back from anyone with authority to either allow or deny permission for me to do so. Then in 1998 and 1999, a fellow Yell enthusiast and I connected by e-mail and made a two-pronged assault on the UDC, with the same result. The ladies acknowledge their possession of the recording, but indicated that they had no equipment to play the wax cylinder, and did not respond to any of our offers to secure such equipment in return for a chance to hear the recording. They do not seem anxious to share what they “preserved for posterity” with those of us who make up that posterity.
During the 125th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Chickamauga, I served on the staff of Charles Clark, and distributed copies of the Harvey Dew article to the members of his brigade. After some discussion and coaching at dress parade, the brigade then attempted the Yell in battle. It sounded pretty good, and a few seconds of the brigade’s impression was captured on the Classic Images video of the reenactment.
If one were to ask me what I believe the true sound of the Rebel Yell was, I would have to say that beyond the fact that it was high-pitched, or falsetto, that its spelling and phonetics were probably less important than the adrenaline that supported its emission. I think that different units and armies gave different versions of the Yell. Its origin has been attributed to Texans imitating an Indian war cry, to Virginians giving the fox hunt cry, and to backwoods coon hunters repeating their cry to the hounds. All of those attributions are probably correct. At the time the Yell became famous, its sponsors were simply yelling in an excited manner, the way all soldiers have yelled for time immemorial, and the yell they selected was surely the same one they used back home when they were excited. Why should they have given the exact same sound? J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry almost certainly sounded like Harvey Dew describes, and perhaps Lee’s entire army did also, but what of the Army of Tennessee, and those in the Trans-Mississippi? They were yelling long before anyone from Virginia came out west to teach them how. As Douglass Southall Freeman told H. Allen Smith, “The rebel yell is pure legend. In Richmond it goes one way. In Atlanta you’ll hear another. In Birmingham still another”.
I believe, however, that I once came close to hearing the. or a, real, Rebel Yell. It was at the filming of the movie “Gettysburg.” Troy Cool, sometime member of the Stonewall Brigade and the Southern Guard, was working full time for TNT and one day when we were portraying Confederates, someone asked Troy to demonstrate the Yell during a lull in the filming. After a few seconds of preparation, he did. It was the Harvey Dew version, but he went far beyond Dew’s ability to describe and Clark’s Chickamauga brigade’s ability to imitate. He reached down into his gut and uttered it as loudly and with as much desperate, penetrating force as the original Confederates must have produced after coming through a hailstorm of lead and seeing that they were winning the fight.
Finally, I offer a poem I wrote in the mid-1980s. It lacks the power Troy Cool gave the Yell, but says what I believe about it:
THE REBEL YELL
None of us have ever heard it.
None of us ever will.
There’s no one left who can give it.
Tho you may hear its echo still.
You may hear it up near Manassas,
and down around Gaines Mill.
In December it echoes in Fredricksburg,
in May around Chancellorsville.
It’s the “pibroch of Southern fealty”.
It’s a Comanche brave’s battle cry.
It’s an English huntsman’s call to the hounds.
It’s a pig farmer’s call to the sty.
It’s a high-pitched trilling falsetto.
It’s the yip of a dog in flight.
It’s the scream of a wounded panther.
It’s the shriek of the wind in the night.
It was yelled when the boys flushed a rabbit.
It was passed man to man in the ranks.
It was cheered when they saw their leaders.
It was screamed when they whipped the Yanks.
But none of us will ever hear it.
Tho some folks mimic it well.
No soul alive can truly describe
the sound of the Rebel Yell.
Click on link to hear
These are Confederate Veterans from the 75th Anniversary of Gettysburg demonstrating the Rebel Yell.