The Rebel Yell

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There is nothing like it on this side of the infernal region. The peculiar corkscrew sensation that it sends down your backbone under these circumstances can never be told. You have to feel it.

A Union soldier in 1861 on the rebel yell.

A tribute to the courage with which Confederate soldiers fought their lopsided fight for independence was the fear inspired in Union ranks when they heard the high pitched wail of the Rebel yell.  It is a pity that sound recordings were more than a decade in the future at the time of the Civil War.  We do have recordings of Confederate veterans screeching the yell, but they would invariably state that it was only a pale reflection of what the yell sounded like during the War.  Financier Bernard Baruch recalled how his father, a surgeon who had served in the Confederate Army, would let loose with it whenever he heard Dixie:

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.

William Howard Russell, British war correspondent, described the yell thusly:   “..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.”

Colonel Keller Anderson of the Confederate Kentucky Orphan Brigade comes close I think to describing its battefield effect:   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.

The rebel yell was a manifestation of the spirt that impelled Confederate troops to defy the long odds against them for four bloody years and to bring to life the Southern maxim:  It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.

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