The rebel yell was a battle cry used by Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. Confederate soldiers used the yell during charges to intimidate the enemy and boost their own morale, although the yell had many other uses. No audio recordings of the yell exist from the Civil War era, but there are audio clips and film footage of veterans doing the yell many years later at Civil War veteran’s reunions.
One of those recording we found deep in the Library of Congres archive which you can check out below. It’s a really interesting footage from a 1930’s Civil war veterans reunion.
The sound of the yell has been the subject of much discussion. Civil War soldiers, upon hearing the yell from afar, would quip that it was either “Jackson, or a rabbit,” suggesting a similarity between the sound of the yell and a rabbit’s scream. The rebel yell has also been likened to the scream of a cougar.
In media, such as movies or video games, the yell is often portrayed as a simple “yee-haw” and in some parts of the United States, “yee-ha”. The yell has also been described as similar to Native American cries. John Salmon “Rip” Ford, in an 1896 interview with Frederic Remington, describes a charge his Texas Rangers made into a Comanche village in 1858 and that his troops gave the “Texas Yell”.One description says it was a cross between an “Indian whoop and wolf-howl.
Given the differences in descriptions of the yell, there might have been several distinctive yells associated with the different regiments and their respective geographical areas.
However, in the documentary film Reconvergence, head of the Museum of the Confederacy and historian Waite Rawls describes his long odyssey to recover recordings of the yell. He found two historical recordings of two different soldiers from two different states (North Carolina infantry, and Virginia cavalry), and he claims they sound nearly identical.
Though hardly a definitive description, having been published some 70 years after the war ended, Margaret Mitchell’s classic Civil War novel Gone with the Wind has a character giving the yell sounding as a “yee-aay-eee” upon hearing the war had started. The film version, by contrast, has the yell sounding as a high-pitched “yay-hoo” repeated several times in rapid succession.
In Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War, Shelby Foote notes that historians are not quite sure how the yell sounded, being described as “a foxhunt yip mixed up with sort of a banshee squall”. He recounts the story of an old Confederate veteran invited to speak before a ladies’ society dinner. They asked him for a demonstration of the rebel yell, but he refused on the grounds that it could only be done “at a run”, and couldn’t be done anyway with “a mouth full of false teeth and a belly full of food”.
Anecdotes from former Union Soldiers described the yell with reference to “a peculiar corkscrew sensation that went up your spine when you heard it” along with the comment that “if you claim you heard it and weren’t scared that means you never heard it”. In the documentary’s final episode, a sound newsreel of a 1930’s meeting of Civil War veterans has a Confederate veteran giving a Rebel yell for the occasion.
In his autobiography My Own Story, Bernard Baruch recalls how his father, a former surgeon in the Confederate army, would at the sound of the song “Dixie” jump up and give the rebel yell, no matter where he was: “As soon as the tune started Mother knew what was coming and so did we boys.
Mother would catch him by the coattails and plead, ‘Shush, Doctor, shush’. But it never did any good. I have seen Father, ordinarily a model of reserve and dignity, leap up in the Metropolitan Opera House and let loose that piercing yell.”
The Confederate yell was intended to help control fear. As one soldier explained: “I always said if I ever went into a charge, I wouldn’t holler! But the very first time I fired off my gun I hollered as loud as I could and I hollered every breath till we stopped.” Jubal Early once told some troops who hesitated to charge because they were out of ammunition: Damn it, holler them across.
— Historian Grady McWhiney (1965)