- The Rebel Yell: A Cultural History by Craig A. Warren
William Howard Russell, the clear-eyed London Times correspondent who covered the Charge of the Light Brigade and the earliest days of the American Civil War, was the first to report the strange sound. While observing Confederate troops dig earthworks near Memphis, he heard an officer announce that slaves would take over the task. “‘Three cheers for General Pillow’ were called for,” Russell recorded, “and were responded to by the whooping and screeching sounds that pass muster in this part of the world for cheers” (4). There, that summer day on the banks of the Mississippi River, what Russell heard was the soon-to-be-famous Rebel Yell.
That the yell was sometimes uttered off the battlefield is only one of many surprises in Craig A. Warren’s fascinating foray into southern aural history. Warren, an associate professor of English and professional writing at Penn State Erie, is the author of The Scars to Prove It: The Civil War Soldier & American Fiction (Kent State, 2009) as well as a raft of articles and reviews. His interest in the Rebel Yell, as he explains in the introduction to his new book, is twofold. First, as “a scholar of language and literature” (xiv), he is intrigued by the “considerable challenge that the scream presents to anyone wishing to communicate it in print” (xiv). Secondly, as a cultural historian, he wants to explore the yell’s post-1865 existence.
The Rebel Yell was widely heard and remarked upon by civilians and northern troops during the First Battle of Bull Run. An Englishwoman [End Page 368] named Catherine C. Hopley vividly described its effect on the Yankees: “It was taken up, and carried along the line for several miles, and they heard the uproar rolling along in its approach like an avalanche of thunder. The enemy were not aware of the cause, and were in their turn overpowered by terror. One frightened company infected the rest and the result is known” (5–6). Likewise, in numerous memoirs, Union soldiers recalled the yell’s terrifying effects in battle. “I have never, since I was born, heard so fearful a noise as a rebel yell,” one Union soldier avowed. “It is nothing like a hurrah, but rather a regular wildcat screech. Each shell that burst over the heads of our men was followed by one of these yells, and the sound was appalling” (20–21).
So what did the Rebel Yell sound like exactly, and what was its origin? Plenty of people during the Civil War and since have tried to describe it, and in the 1930s the Library of Congress even recorded old Confederate veterans gamely attempting to reproduce the battle cry of their youth. Early efforts to describe the yell in print presented a confusing variety. One Virginian wrote that it went “Woh-who—ey! who—ey! who—ey!” (35), while another Johnny Reb declared that it went “Yai, Yai, Yi, Yai, Yi!”, and that’s only the beginning. As to its genesis, everything from farm shouts to fox hunting cries to Indian war whoops has been proposed. During the late nineteenth century, some Confederate veterans took issue with all the speculation and declared that the original yell could never be replicated, a contention backed decades later by historian and novelist Shelby Foote. During Ken Burns’s blockbuster PBS series The Civil War in 1990, the urbane Foote said of the yell, “[It] perished from the sound waves. Wildcat screech, foxhunter yip, banshee squall, whatever it had been, it survived only in the fading memories and sometimes vivid dreams of old men sunning themselves on public benches, grouped together in resentment of the boredom they encountered when they spoke of the war to those who had not shared it with them” (108).
But as Warren convincingly demonstrates, there were in reality many rebel yells. In short, every man’s was different. That it was high pitched seems to be the only commonality...