Other diaries, penned by members of both the Union and the Confederacy, attempt to describe precisely what the cry sounded like. Accounts vary widely, characterizing it as “wild,” “soul-stirring,” and “deafening,” and calling it everything from “that strange fierce cry” to “a high shrill yelp, uttered without concert.” One author simply records the sounds he heard: “yi — yi — yi.”
Several combat memoirs attempt to locate the origins of the shout, though contemporary scholars commonly believe it first emerged at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Part intimidation technique, part rallying force, the rambunctious cry served to inspire participants and render opponents fearful. In some dire situations, it may have been a commander’s last resort. As one veteran observed, “If a recruit had nothing at hand but the ‘rebel yell,’ he could at least help to intimidate an adversary.”
The 1901 memoirs of Samuel Gibbs French offer a particularly poetic description of the rebel yell, though it should be noted that French’s role as a Confederate leader may have tinted his recollection with nostalgia:
The “Rebel yell” was born amidst the roar of cannon, the flash of the musket, the deadly conflict, comrades falling, and death in front—then, when rushing forward, that unearthly yell rose from a thousand Confederate throats, loud…and with the force of a tornado they swept on over the field to death or victory. O how the heart throbs and the eye glares! As that yell is the offspring of the tempest of the battle and death, it cannot be heard in peace, no, never, never! The Federal cheer lives on, and is heard daily in the land. That Confederate yell was never, as far as I know, made when standing still. It was really an inspiration arising from facing danger and death which, as brave men, they resolved to meet. Ye children of peace can never hear it; wherefore I write of a sound that was produced by environment ye will never have. It died with the cause that produced it.
French’s dramatic death pronouncement is powerful, though perhaps too final.
Accounts vary widely, characterizing it as “wild,” “soul-stirring,” and “deafening,” and calling it everything from “that strange fierce cry” to “a high shrill yelp, uttered without concert.” One author simply records the sounds he heard: “yi — yi — yi.”
Another famous recording of veterans reprising the Rebel yell exists on video footage from the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Only ten thousand or so veterans remained alive, and those who were able—nearly two thousand of them—traveled to Pennsylvania to commemorate their service. The 1938 film shows veterans—some in uniform—flanking a wall on the battlefield. The former enemies reach across the stones to shake hands, and after a chorus of hellos, several voices begin to call, sounding out “Whoo!” A male voice states clearly, “That’s the rebel yell,” and the clip ends.
Of course, neither of these recordings suggests the full power or scope of the cry as it must have been heard on the battlefield. To address this omission, the Museum of the Confederacy has taken existing recordings of veterans giving the rebel yell, remastered them, and combined them to simulate the effect of larger groups of soldiers bellowing out the battle cry. One recording suggests the sound that a company of seventy men—the size of the 11th Alabama— would have made. Others increase the numbers of recordings copied, offering the sounds of a regiment, a brigade, and even the full Army of Northern Virginia. While these recordings remain careful approximations, they are an innovative attempt to transport listeners back to those bitter days when men of our nation faced down one another. If you close your eyes and listen closely enough, you just might feel the April breeze wafting across the fields at Chancellorsville as the sound of your compatriots buffets your ears.
This feature was previously published in Issue 101, Summer 2011.
To view rare footage of Civil War veterans performing the Rebel Yell, click here.
About the Author
Elizabeth Wade serves as an assistant editor of Alabama Heritage magazine.