The rebel yell was a battle cry used by Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. Confederate soldiers would use the yell during charges to intimidate the enemy and boost their own morale, although the yell had other uses. The exact sound of the yell is unknown and the subject of much speculation and debate. Likewise, the origin of the yell is uncertain.
Units were nicknamed for their apparent ability to yell during battle. The 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry "White's Cavalry" were given the nom de guerre of "Comanches" for the way they sounded during battle.
The sound of the yell has been the subject of much discussion and debate. 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 catamount. 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. One description says it was a cross between an "Indian whoop and wolf-howl".
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.
Several recordings of possibly accurate yells exist. One, from a newsreel documenting the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, documents several Confederate veterans performing the yell as a high-pitched "Wa-woo-woohoo, wa-woo woohoo."
Given the differences in descriptions of the yell, there may have been several distinctive yells associated with the different regiments and their respective geographical areas.
In Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War, Shelby Foote notes that historians aren't 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 a claim that "if you claim you heard it and weren't scared that means you never heard it".
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."
Many years ago,as a boy of nine or ten, my father gave me an old history of the Civil War which described the yell as a "hunting cry." I noticed in later years that modern hitorians are not sure of the sound. I have heard the rendition in the 75th Reunion at Gettysburg, and must say, respectfully, that I do not think Gallant Old Gentlemen in their 90's can really do it justice. I submit that the yell is what I have heard in Ireland, foxhunting, for many years. It is the sound made by anyone, on horse or not, who spies the fox. It is called a "holloa" or "view holloa." It is pronounced "holler." A very good rendition of this, by one man, can be found at, of all places, the website North West Hunt Saboteurs. Imagine this sound from some 15,000 infantry.
The yell has often been linked to Native American cries. Confederate soldiers may have either imitated or learned the yell from Native American groups, many of whom sided with the Confederacy. Some Texas units mingled Comanche war woops into their version of the yell. The yell has also been associated with hunting cries.. Perhaps Confederate soldiers imitated the cries of their hunting dogs.[dubious ]
Another plausible source of the rebel yell, advanced by the historian Grady McWhiney, is that it derived from the screams traditionally made by Scottish Highlanders when making a Highland charge during battle. At the Battle of Killiecrankie "Dundee and the Chiefs chose to employ perhaps the most effective pre-battle weapon in the traditional (highland) arsenal - the eerie and disconcerting howl," also "The terror was heightened by their wild plaided appearance and the distinctive war-cry of the Gael - a high, savage whooping sound...." Also earlier documentation during the Roman conquests of Britain suggest the use of a particular yell uttered by the northern Celtic tribes of the region, in conjunction with wearing blue woad body paint and no clothing.
The notion that the rebel yell was Celtic in origin is further supported by James Hill: "The first United States census in 1790 revealed a well defined ethnic division between the Northern and Southern states. In New England 75 percent of the people were Anglo-Saxons in origin, while Celts outnumbered Anglo-Saxons in the South two to one." "A decade before the American Civil War the South - from Virginia to Texas was probably three-quarters Celtic." This evidence is also supported by McDonald & McWhiney's research into the Celtic nature of the Southern States.
A third explanation, with special reference to the rebel yells uttered by the Army of Northern Virginia is that the rebel yell was partly adapted from the specialized cries used by men experienced in fox hunting. Sidney Lanier, the poet and Confederate veteran, described his unit's yell as "a single long cry as from the leader of a pack of hounds."
Considering the existence of many differing versions of the yell, it may have multiple origins.
- One of the earliest accounts of use of the yell comes from the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) during then Brig. General Thomas Jonathan Stonewall Jackson's assault at Henry House Hill. An order was given during a bayonet charge to "yell like furies", which was instrumental in routing the Federal forces under General Irvin McDowell back to Washington D.C.
- “Then arose that do-or-die expression, that maniacal maelstrom of sound; that penetrating, rasping, shrieking, blood-curdling noise that could be heard for miles and whose volume reached the heavens–such an expression as never yet came from the throats of sane men, but from men whom the seething blast of an imaginary hell would not check while the sound lasted.” -Colonel Keller Anderson of Kentucky's Orphan Brigade
- "It paragons description, that yell! How it starts deep and ends high, how it rises into three increasing crescendos and breaks with a command of battle."-a New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter
- “In an instant every voice with one accord vigorously shouted the ‘Rebel yell,’ which was so often heard on the field of battle. ‘Woh-who-ey! who-ey! who-ey! Woh-who-ey! who-ey!’ etc. (The best illustration of this "true yell" which can be given the reader is by spelling it as above, with directions to sound the first syllable ‘who’ short and low, and the second "who" with a very high and prolonged note deflecting upon the third syllable "ey.")”- Colonel Harvey Dew of the 9th Virginia Cavalry, in Century Illustrated Magazine (1892)
- "At last it grew too dark to fight. Then away to our left and rear some of Bragg's people set up 'the rebel yell'. It was taken up successively and passed around to our front, along our right and in behind us again, until it seemed almost to have got to the point whence it started. It was the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard -- even a mortal exhausted and unnerved by two days of hard fighting, without sleep, without rest, without food and without hope..." - Narrative of then-Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce, 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, XXI Corps, Army of the Cumberland, at the Battle of Chickamauga (Last Union defenses on Horseshoe Ridge, September 20, 1863)
- William Howard Russell, war correspondent for The Times describes the rebel yell as follows: “..the Southern soldiers cannot cheer, and what passes muster for that jubilant sound is a shrill ringing scream with a touch of the Indian war-whoop in it.” (Russell, W.H., 1863; 312)
- YouTube - Confederate Rebel Yell
- "Rebel Yell". Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Ed. David Stephen Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler, and David J. Coles. 2002. p 1615.
- Hill J.M., 1986.
- MacLeod J., 1996 p. 140.
- Hill, p. 173.
- McDonald, F., 1978; Mcdonald, F., & McDonald, E.S. 1980.
- The Rebel Yell.
- StonewallBrigade.com-Rebel Yell
- Dwelly, E., (1973), “The Illustrated Gaelic English Dictionary” 8th Edition, Gairm Publications, Glasgow.
- Hill, J. M. (1986). Celtic Warfare 1595-1763. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd.
- MacLeod, J. (1996). Highlanders - A History of the Gaels. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-63991-1.
- McDonald, F., (1978), "The Ethnic Factor in Alabama History: A Neglected Dimension", Alabama Review, 31, pp. 256-65.
- McDonald, F., & McDonald, E.S., (1980), "The Ethnic Origins of the American People, 1790", William & Mary Quarterly, 37, pp. 179-99.
- Russell, W.H., (1863), “My Diary North and South”, T.O.H.P. Burnham, Boston.
- Actual recording of a rebel yell, performed by a veteran in 1935
- Rebel yell performed by veterans at Gettysburg in 1938