Not Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell!

Any cursory reading of the Civil War in general will mention, somewhere, the Rebel Yell. Poems have been written about its eerie sound, creeping up Yankee spines into Yankee brains and scaring Yankees spitless.

At about a zillion reenactments, the Confederates come at the Union troops, screaming at the top of their lungs, and halfway up the field, they start panting–and not just because they had breakfast at McDonald’s that morning, apparently. Well, sooner or later, all comes clear, and once again, the sound of the Rebel Yell is being heard in our land.

The initial efforts to recreate this chilling effect came from the Musuem of the Confederacy. This small, under-appreciated little place was begun in 1896, and has struggled to exist ever since, although according to the website, things are looking up. It is cited in countless books and articles as being of inestimable help with research and support, no matter what the Civil War related topic.

It does not seem to be a dusty old museum, either, as they have an attractive, easy to use web site (http://www.moc.org/site/PageServer) and a great selection of videos and video clips on YouTube on all manner of things related to the War. It is located in Richmond, Virginia. At least check out the Confederate Christmas cards available on the e-site.

One of the projects this museum worked on, under the direction of Museum President and CEO Waite Rawls, was to identify the “authentic sound of the Rebel Yell.” This involved a search to locate an original recording of the Rebel Yell. The first recording found was that of Confederate veteran Thomas Alexander, of the 37th North Carolina Infantry. Rawls heard about this rare recording, made by WBT Radio in 1935, while he was on a National Civil War Trust tour bus ride through a battlefield. After hearing it, he was surprised by its sound–more like a war whoop than an actual yell. Historian Shelby Foote described it as a fox hunt yip mixed up with a banshee squall.

It sounded sort of goofy on its own, but Rawls immediately wondered what it would have sounded like when given by a company (70-100 men), a regiment (700-1000 men), a brigade (2,500-3000 men) or even a division (6,000-10,000 men). Through the magic of technology, Rawls created hundreds of recordings of yell mixes, giving the one voice multiple versions. So, now one can hear what each group of men sounded like–and it is indeed eerie!

But was this truly the vaunted Rebel Yell? MoC historians kept on looking for further proof, and they finally found another recording. This one is by S. S. Simmons, a courier in Company E, 8th Virginia Cavalry. It had been recorded in 1934, to be part of a movie soundtrack. A few months later, actress Marion Davies presented the wax recording to the Los Angeles Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, who had kept it ever since.

The Rebel Yell itself probably came in a distant second to the hysterical screams of the Confederate historians when they finally heard Simmons. His yell matched almost exactly the earlier recording, although the men were in different branches of the Confederate Army, and different theaters of war. Hypotheses were confirmed! They had the real Rebel Yell.

In 2008, the Museum of the Confederacy made a CD of their efforts. It is written by Waite Rawls, and narrated by Marc Ramset and J. E. B. Stuart IV, and titled, simply, The Rebel Yell Lives! It is available from the Museum of the Confederacy for a reasonable $15.00, and they take PayPal.

Why buy the CD? Historians claimed the sound had been lost to history. Veterans groups and reenactors all over the world have attempted to recreate it, but no one realized how far from accurate the attempts were. Henry Kidd, an artist and a leading East Coast reenactor, heard the CD and immediately realized what had to be done.

At both YouTube and the MoC websites, there is a wonderful video of Mr. Kidd using his knowledge, gained from repeated listening to the CD, to teach fellow reenactors the authentic Rebel Yell. The footage contains Kidd instructing four hundred members of Longstreet’s Corps at the 145th Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek, in Middletown, Virginia. When the reenactors, having mastered the yell and fixed bayonets, charge at the cameras, it is thrilling to see, and now to hear. This really should be an indispensable part of any School of the Soldier.

Last spring, the Smithsonian Museum put an old film clip on their site. It is an amazing slice of history from a Confederate Veteran’s reunion, and in it the vets are asked to give the Rebel Yell one last time. Even from men who are advanced in years, it comes through loud and clear. It is high, eerie, and chilling–and it matches exactly the two previous recordings found by the Museum of the Confederacy.

Monte Akers, a blogger for The Stonewall Brigade, wrote his feeling about the Yell, and the various attempts to recreate it, in an article, “The Rebel Yell, ‘The Pibroch of Southern Fealty.’ ” He closes his article with a poem he wrote in the mid 1980s:

THE REBEL YELL
None of us have ever heard it.
None of us ever will.
There’s no one left who can give it,
Tho you may hear its echo still.

You may hear it up near Manassas,
and down around Gaines Mill.
In December it echoes in Fredericksburg,
in May around Chancelorsville.

It’s the “pilbroch of southern fealty.”
It’s a Comanche brave’s battle cry.
It’s an English huntsman’s call to the hounds.
It’s a pig farmer’s call to the sty.

It’s a high-pitched trilling falsetto.
It’s the yip of a dog in a fight.
It’s the scream of a wounded panther.
It’s the shriek of the wind in the night.

It was yelled when the boys flushed a rabbit.
It was passed man to man in the ranks.
It was cheered when they saw their leaders.
It was screamed when they whipped the Yanks.

But none of us will ever hear it,
Tho some folks mimic it well.
No soul alive can truly describe
The sound of the Rebel Yell.

I hope, Mr. Akers, that you are as glad as I am to be able to finally hear one of the most important sounds in the War.

Recommended Viewing:
HYPERLINK “http://www.smithsonianmag.com/search/?keyword=rebel+yell” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/search/?keyword=rebel+yell
HYPERLINK “http://www.moc.org/site/PageServer?pagename=vodcasts” http://www.moc.org/site/PageServer?pagename=vodcasts
HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfHylwlq9Ow” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfHylwlq9Ow
HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buZ1M3iN-UE&feature=related” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buZ1M3iN-UE&feature=related
HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paZuUDBVoik&feature=related” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paZuUDBVoik&feature=related
HYPERLINK “http://www.stonewallbrigade.com/articles_rebelyell.html” http://www.stonewallbrigade.com/articles_rebelyell.html

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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4 Responses to Not Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell!

  1. Very interesting post! I heard the recordings on Youtube and they are amazing. Ken Burns has a film clip of an old Reb giving the yell in his series, probably the Confederate reunion clip you reference. Hearing the remastered “group yell” is chilling. BTW I visited the Museum of the Confederacy in October and it is indeed a remarkable place. Coupled with the Jefferson Davis home tour next door, it made for a wonderful day of history and reflection.

  2. Meg Thompson says:

    This was a nice piece to write–I love it when things work out so well. Waite Rawls had such a great idea, and with technology, he could get it done–Huzzah!

  3. Henry Kidd says:

    It is rare that a sound to history can be revived with accuracy. But thanks to the researchers at the Museum of the Confederacy, we can now hear the Real Rebel Yell. I encourage all Confederate reenactors to buy the CD and imulate it. As living historians, we should all strive to portray history as accurately as possible. Now that we know what the Rebel Yell sounds like, I hope we never hear the Dukes of Hazards “Yee-Hi” again. It is chilling to hear the yell done correctly. Please watch the videos and judge for yourself. I can’t wait until the 150th of Gettysburg and hear the echos of 10,000 Confederates shouting to the heavens.
    Rebel Yell Video; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buZ1M3iN-UE&feature=player_embedded

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