With a Rebel Yell

Confederate veterans sounding the rebel yell (circa 1930).

As today marks the 150 anniversary of Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg address, here now a novel bit of American Civil War minutiae. The battle cry of Confederate soldiers was known as the rebel yell, a name more recently associated with Billy Idol’s single of the same name, released November 1983 (in fact the song title references a rot-gut spirit). Union soldiers would describe the call as a “rabbit’s scream,” a cross between an “Indian whoop and wolf-howl,” and “a foxhunt yip mixed up with sort of a banshee squall.”

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)

As no audio recordings of the rebel yell exist from the Civil War, historians have used various onomatopoeiae to describe its sound including:

  • Yee-haw/yee-ha
  • Wa-woo-woohoo, wa-woo woohoo
  • Yay-hoo
  • Woh-who-ey! who-ey! who-ey! Woh-who-ey! who-ey!

Via Ken Burns’ The Civil War.

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