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.”
The first combat use of this sound or sounds may have been at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861. In an unsigned article also published in the London Times, on January 17, 1865, the career of the Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is recounted. In the heat of battle against Union forces at Manassas, he is said to have commanded his men to “give them the bayonet; and when you charge, yell like furies!” An undated newspaper clipping in the archives of Washington and Lee University provides a similar account, attributing it to the memory of John B. Jones, ain the 4th Virginia Infantry of the , and the story appeared in a biography of Jackson, Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson) (1866), by . Military reports of the battle, including by Jackson himself, do not mention the incident, but over the years Jackson has come to be closely associated with the origins of the Rebel yell.
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.”
Various historians have noted the distinction made in these texts between Confederate and Union yells, one that was also made by the Confederate general. In an official report dated December 27, 1862, he recalled “the cheering peculiar to the Confederate soldier, and which is never mistaken for the studied hurrahs of the Yankees.” According to the scholar Craig A. Warren, it is unlikely there was a single, distinctive Confederate yell, although Southern soldiers did make noise that was different from their Northern counterparts and shared certain characteristics. It was often described as a shrill, in-unison screeching and was associated with animals, the hunting of animals, and Indians. It did not utilize words and few if any observers attempted to transcribe it during the war. The yell could be used before, during, or after battle to help create or to celebrate victory. And it was often but not always said to inspire fear in opposing armies. In a diary entry dated April 28, 1863, an unnamed Northern woman living near Vicksburg, Mississippi, wrote, “Added to all this [the sounds of muskets and artillery] is the indescribable Confederate yell, which is a soul-harrowing sound to hear.”
In A Brave Black Regiment (1894), a history of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Luis F. Emilio quotes a sergeant from the African American regiment, who recalled that the Confederates yelled more loudly and fiercely when facing black troops. “Wagner always seemed to me the most terrible of battles, but the musketry at Honey Hill was something fearful,” the sergeant said. “The so-called ‘Rebel yell’ was more prominent than I ever heard it.” The Confederate veteran William A. Courtenay, referring to the same battle, which was fought in South Carolina on November 30, 1864, wrote, “The rebel yell was more prominent (artillery, cavalry and infantry, all responsible) than ever I heard it!” Accounts of other battles, including at theon July 30, 1864, suggest that encounters between Confederates and black troops were especially fierce. In the Life of Johnny Reb (1943), the historian Bell Irvin Wiley wrote, “Rebs attacking Negro troops injected so much hatred into their cry as to modify its tonal qualities.”
Popular understanding of the Rebel yell changed and evolved in the years and decades following the. By the end of the war a growing sense had developed of a single, distinctive sound, and the term “Rebel yell” was increasingly used to describe it. “Perhaps Americans found the succinct, three-syllable term easier to say than a longer alternative such as ‘Confederate yell,'” Craig Warren has written. “Certainly the term offers a dramatic flair that the more descriptive ‘southern yell’ lacks altogether. Indeed, the beguiling name gave the phenomenon a life of its own.”
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.
William E. Poulson was an example of that reconciliation. A native of Portsmouth, he served in the Confederate ordnance department during the war and then sold insurance in Chicago. In a 1906 issue of Confederate Veteran magazine, he published “The Rebel Yell,” a long poem that dramatizes a Union soldier’s fear at hearing the famous screech for the first time. “The yell was different from all the sounds / Ever heard,” Poulson wrote, comparing it to the utterings of “maddened hounds” and “starved hyenas.” Alexander Hunter, another Confederate veteran from Virginia, wrote in 1913 of encountering “the Rebel yell with all its appalling significance. I never in my life heard such a fearsome, awful sound.”
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 Rebel Yell: A Cultural History (2014), Warren argues that the Rebel yell served as an important symbol of the Confederacy after the war in part because flags, including the Confederate battle flag, were largely discouraged or banned from public display until they began to reappear during the civil rights movement in the mid-1900s. The Rebel yell stood in for the flag as shorthand for Confederate heritage and southern defiance. The yell might be employed literally, as a crowd was reported to have done upon theof former Confederate president . It also might be used metaphorically, in the fashion of editorial writers in both the North and South during Reconstruction. In 1868, a Michigan paper described certain political positions staked out by former Confederates as reminiscent of “The Old ‘Rebel Yell,'” while the Inter Ocean newspaper of Chicago, in 1875, described the murder of African Americans in Mississippi as coming at the hand of the Rebel yell.
Although the yell appeared in the fiction of Margaret Mitchell and, over time it began to lose its popular resonance. By the mid-twentieth century, as the battle flag became preferred as a Confederate symbol, the Rebel yell began to be treated with less formal respect. The Rebel Yell; Being a Carpetbagger’s Attempt to Establish the Truth Concerning the Screech of the Confederate Soldier Plus Lesser Matters Appertaining to the Peculiar Habits of the South (1954), by H. Allen Smith, treated it as light comedy, for instance. Later it served as the name of the student newspaper at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas, a Kentucky bourbon, a roller coaster at Kings Dominion amusement park in Virginia, and a 1983 song by the British singer Billy Idol. Unlike the battle flag, the Rebel yell has, over time, broken free from its Confederate origins and in many instances carries none of the cultural baggage of the Civil War.