‘So fearful a noise’ — Rebel Yell

Published 6:00 am Sunday, November 6, 2016

By Jack Mayfield

One thing that most people in the SEC do at a game had its origin in the days of the Civil War. We in the South have a distinct “yell” that we do at all sporting events. Even though the Ole Miss Rebel Nation would like to call the “Rebel Yell” our own, a great many fans who are not an Ole Miss Rebels use it.

When I was writing the series I did on the Mississippi 11th, made up of university students and local Lafayette County residents, from time to time there were references made to a very scary yell that would be made by the Confederate soldier when he was on the attack.

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From what I have found through my research, the “Rebel Yell” was used by most Confederate companies from the beginning of hostilities at the First Battle of Manassas.

Although only two companies of the Mississippi 11th were engaged in this battle, the use of the high-pitched yell was adopted by every company in the Confederate Army.

Steven H. Stubbs, in his history of the Mississippi 11th, writes that many Yankees characterized the roar of the Rebel Yell as a “screaming, high-pitched yell, shrill and exultant, that ended in a hideous, spine-chilling screech.”

One Union soldier declared, “I have never, since I was born, heard so fearful a noise as he Rebel Yell. Only men who are going to kill or be killed could yell like that.”

A member of Company K of the 11th, Fourth Cpl. William F. Hamilton, stated of the Rebel Yell, it was “the famous yell that sent terror to Yankee hearts was raised and a charge was made that broke every line in front of the Confederates.”

Another soldier of the 11th, Pvt. Tom Wilkins of Company E recalled after the war, during one battle “the whole division broke into a trot down the slopes toward the Federal works, men fell like leaves in an autumn wind as the Federal artillery tore gaps in our every step.

When our men were within 30 yards of the ravine, and could see the desperate nature of the work at hand, a wild Rebel Yell answered the roar of Federal musketry.”

Princeton historian James E. McPherson wrote of the First Battle of Manassas, “The Southerners charged forward with the Rebel Yell on their lips. A high-pitched, wailing scream, this famous yell served the same function as the deep-toned snort uttered by the Yankee soldier in battle–it relieved tension and created a sense of solidarity among comrades.

Of unknown origin (some said it came from the fox-hunter’s cry, others likened it to a hog-calling ‘halloo’), the Rebel Yell was by all accounts a fearsome thing.”

“There is nothing like it this side of the infernal region,” wrote a Union veteran. “The peculiar corkscrew sensation that it sends down your backbone under these circumstances can never be told.

You have to feel it, and if you say you did not feel it, and heard the yell, you have never been there.”

One other report of the origin of the yell states the yell is thought to have been influenced either by the Native American was cry or possibly a Scottish war cry tradition. One of the earliest accounts of the use of the yell comes from the First Manassas when Stonewall Jackson gave an order for a bayonet charge and for the men to “yell like Furies.”

If the yell came from the Scottish Highlanders, it was a traditional scream made during a charge during battle.

At the Battle of Killiecrankle it was said, “Dundee and the Chiefs chose to employ perhaps the most effective pre-battle weapon in the traditional Highland arsenal—the eerie and

It could have been from Confederate soldiers imitating the cries of their hunting dogs. Still others feel it was a mingled Comanche war whoop or wolf howl, or even the sound of a rabbit’s scream when in distres

Whatever the origin, the Rebel Yell made during Confederate charges did intimidate the enemy and boosted the Confederate soldier’s morale.

The yell has been given as a “yee-haw-yee-ha-wa, woo-woohoo, wa-woohoo, yay-hoo, or yee-aay-ee.” Noted Civil War historian Shelby Foote notes that historians are not quite sure how the yell sounded.

He states it may have been different for different Confederate companies, but he described the Rebel Yell as “a fox hunt yip mixed up with a sort of banshee squall.”

Foote also recounted in Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Civil War, a 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 “on a run,” and that it could not be done with “a mouth full of false teeth and a belly full of food.”

The noted historian went on to quote a Union soldier’s comment of “the peculiar corkscrew sensation of the yell that went up your spine when you heard it” and that “if you claim you heard it and weren’t scared, it means you never heard it.”

With this information in hand, you may want to give a Rebel Yell similar to the ones noted here at you next Ole Miss game, and when the person next to you asks what you are yelling — you can say it is your version of a “Rebel Yell.”

Jack Mayfield is an Oxford resident and historian. Contact him at jlmayfield@dixie-net.com.