Historians have been debating the existence and characteristics of Confederate nationalism for decades. Evidence for these arguments [End Page 103] usually comes from personal correspondence and the popular press, with surprisingly little focus on the Confederacy’s most prominent cultural symbols. Of the failed nation’s three major symbols, the flag has attracted the most attention, with the song “Dixie” pulling up a distant second. Even more distant is the Rebel yell, the subject of this welcome new study by Craig A. Warren. He claims the yell’s recession from popular memory is a fairly recent phenomenon, arguing it was “perhaps the major symbol of white southern identity between 1865 and 1948” (p. xvi).
Warren’s examination of the yell and its history is broad, both chronologically and conceptually. He traces the Rebel yell’s development and place in American culture from the Civil War to the present, considering it “not only as a vocal blast but also as a verbal expression and a brand name” (p. xv). This approach works well, as it demonstrates how flexible a symbol the yell has become and how often different groups have appropriated it at different times. Warren’s chapters dealing with the yell’s place in the war itself and among the wartime generation are also effective, particularly in their analysis of the yell’s origins and characteristics. Indeed, this book’s greatest contribution may be these almost anthropological discussions. For instance, few readers could finish the book and still subscribe to the widely popular myth that “Stonewall” Jackson invented the famous scream at First Bull Run. Perhaps even more significantly, Warren buries previous attempts to isolate a single “true” Rebel yell, convincingly arguing it was the mixture of unique screams from a mass of Confederate soldiers rather than a uniform yell bellowed in unison. Another of the book’s strengths is how Warren ties this latter point to the myth of the “Lost Rebel yell,” contending later generations clung to the idea of a single irretrievable yell in order to make it a symbol for the equally lost and irretrievable Old South.
The book excellently meshes history and memory throughout but naturally leans more toward memory near the end. Warren presents some good ideas in these final chapters but is overall less convincing as he constructs a narrative for the Rebel yell that characterizes it as [End Page 104] a less-racially-charged symbol of Confederate memory than the flag or “Dixie.” In Warren’s narrative, the proliferation of televisions in the mid-twentieth century made visual symbols much more powerful than aural ones. White southern resistance to the civil rights movement elevated the flag to its current status as the dominant symbol of Confederate memory and white supremacy, replacing the always more romanticized Rebel yell. Warren views the yell today as an essentially apolitical symbol, allowing marketers and entertainers to adopt it without much controversy. While this is an intriguing point and the yell surely carries less racist baggage than the Confederate battle flag, it is unlikely that time has completely erased its Confederate associations. Whether or not those who use it today understand this context only matters so much, because they do not completely control how their products are interpreted anyway. The Confederate battle flag enjoyed a similar seemingly uncontroversial ubiquity in popular culture during the 1970s and 1980s, but observers sensitive to its history noted its latent associations and the flag became taboo. The Rebel yell is a less tangible historical artifact but, as Warren expertly notes, it resonates with us still and sounds a complicated legacy.
CHRISTIAN MCWHIRTER is an assistant editor for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln and editor of the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. He is the author of Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War (2012).