No matter which side your family may have fought for (or what you might think they were fighting for), the American Civil War was truly an “American war.” Both sides -Union and Confederate- were comprised of American men who fought for what they believed in, often against their own friends and family members.
“It was a curious war,” Civil War Henry Steele Commager once wrote*. “The men in the blue and gray…had character. They knew what they were fighting for, as well as men ever know this, and they fought with a courage and tenacity rarely equaled in history… Both peoples subscribed to the same moral values and observed the same standards of conduct. Both were convinced that the cause for which they fought was just- and their descendants still are.”
In the epic battles between the Northern and Southern States of America, the sounds of war were very similar -yet uniquely different- than the clamor of battle today. Long gone are the days of fife and drum corps, the flat percussion of muskets and the stomach-twisting kick to the chest of a cannon’s fire.
One such sound -uttered by Americans in such an American war- was the “Rebel Yell,” a sound deemed so terrifying and often so unique that it could strike terror into the hearts of Union troops while bolstering the morale and resolve of their Confederate counterparts.
A war cry as unique as the individual units who shouted it to the heavens, the Rebel Yell has often been linked in heritage to both the Native Americans, Celts, North Englanders and the Scottish Highlanders, who would cry out during a raid or charge in olden times. Given that the better-known ‘yellers were generally comprised of Appalachian and Scots-Irish men who were not only descendants of Highlanders but often raised alongside the Natives to an extent, both theories are quite plausible.
Prior to being deemed a “rebel yell” of the Confederacy, other rebels (the colonists in the Revolutionary War- who were more geared toward guerrilla warfare would mimic Indian war parties when they raided British camps or took on their Redcoat foes.
The ‘yell’s sound depended on the units providing it. Some of them sounded like a legion of cougars, others sounded like a pack of hungry wolves or coyotes. Some units were even described as sounding like hunting dogs.
While historians aren’t certain how the average yell sounded, it was often described as a “foxhunt yip mixed with sort of a banshee squall.” Union Soldiers described it as a “peculiar corkscrew sensation that went up your spine when you heard it,” adding that “if you claim you heard it and weren’t scared…that means you never heard it”.
Emanating from the woods on a foggy morning or accompanying the visible advance of a line of Confederate troops, the yell was generally regarded as terrifying by Union soldiers, as it not only created a din one could barely think over but made an already-advancing force seem much larger than they actually were.
For Confederate troops, the sound was a soothing one that heightened the senses and dulled one’s fear.
According to historian Grady McWhitney, “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.”
When Confederate General Jubal Anderson Early once saw some troops who hesitated to charge because they were out of ammunition, he reportedly said “Damn it, holler them across.”
Former Union officer-turned classic American writer Ambrose Bierce remembered when troops of Confederate General Braxton Bragg (yes, the one Fort Bragg is named after) pierced the night with their blood-curdling yell during the bloody battle of Chickamauga.
“At last it grew too dark to fight,” he recounted. “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…”
Bragg and his Army of Tennessee would claim victory over the Union in this battle, with each side losing over one-quarter of their respective units as official casualties.
In the 1930s, an aging -yet pretty jovial- group of Confederate veterans (who would be the 21st Century equivalent of the now-diminishing World War II veteran), gave a rare recorded re-creation of the Rebel Yell, albeit with much less air in their lungs and stamina to do it like when they were younger.
While no recording of a true Civil War-era rebel yell exists, the chilling sounds were often passed down to be faithfully recreated.
The Rebel Yell still lives on today -albeit unofficially- with accounts ranging from the battlefields of World War I (where many veterans of this war had parents or grandparents in the Civil War) all the way up to the Indian howls of some American troops in the Iraq War as they mounted their HMMWVs and set off on a raid or patrol.
If nothing else, the Rebel Yell survives because it is the sound of camaraderie for those of utter it: an audible reminder that the man to your left and right is in the same predicament as you, and that you will enter the fray together– screaming, shooting and advancing as one, no matter the end result.
And those who are on the receiving end of it? May God have mercy on their souls.
*Quote from “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America” by Jim Webb
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