How to Spell the Rebel Yell

What did the Civil War sound like?

Elena Passarello | The Normal School | 2010 | 14 minutes (3,470 words)

The Normal SchoolOur latest Longreads Member Pick is a deep dive into the sounds of history, from Elena Passarello and The Normal School. The essay also is featured in Passarello’s book, Let Me Clear My Throat.
Buy the book

Download .mobi (Kindle) Download .epub (iBooks)

 

“Yee-aay-ee!” “Wah-Who-Eeee!” -Margaret Mitchell

 

“Wah-Who-Eeee!” -Chester Goolrick

 

“Rrrrrr-yahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip!”

-H. Allen Smith

 

“More! More! More!” -Billy Idol

First Manassas. In the 90-degree heat, the Union fords Bull Run and then busts through line after line of Confederate troops, aiming for the railroad to Richmond. Under the grassy shield of Henry House Hill’s western slope, the Confederates scramble for reinforcements. Somebody overhears General Bee comparing Colonel Jackson to a “stone wall.” This either compliments Jackson’s steadfastness or jeers the corporal’s languor. No one will ever know for certain, since Bee is shot dead shortly after the quip leaves his lips.

The voices of war can turn gossip into nicknames, dialogue into mythology. And Lord only knows what parts of any war story are actually true. At Manassas, folks just take what they think they overheard Bee say and run with it.

“Stonewall” Jackson runs as well. He turns away from Bee and charges up Henry House Hill with the Fourth Virginia Infantry, pausing before reaching the top. His whole brigade is about to come nose-to-nose with the Union, but he turns back to them, raising a hand to God. Pipe down, the troops tell each other. He’s going to say something to us. The Corporal opens his mouth.

* * *

To hear Walt Whitman tell it, a war can begin and end with voices. Whitman’s first memory of the secession is walking down Broadway in the early hours of April 13, 1861, as the cries of the newsboys precede their physical approach. First yells, then young footsteps, then their words in soprano: “tearing and yelling up the street, rushing from side to side even more furiously than usual.”

Later that night, under the gas lamps of the Metropolitan Hotel, only a few patrons, Whitman included, carry a copy of that Extra in their vest pockets. Voices hush to murmurs as one person reads the facts of the war aloud: “All listen’d silently and attentively,” Whitman says. “No remark was made by any of the crowd, which had increas’d to thirty or forty, but all stood a minute or two, I remember, before they dispers’d.”

It is a careful business, wrapping words around these kinds of moments—moments of unintelligible volume, or of silence, or of lost dialogue. All three are charged with an emotion that can’t be recounted from a seated position, but Whitman does it. He quotes neither the newsboys nor the voice reading the papers, but, in his account, both feel audible. We force his words, which stand as both a buffer and a conduit, to carry added sound.

There is sound, obviously, in the words Whitman uses, like “loud” and “cries.” Sound in “crowd” and sound in “silently.” And even sound in words that aren’t about noise—verbs like “rushing,” nouns like “midnight,” proper nouns like “Broadway,” adverbs like “furiously.”

This is the sound of “furiously”: little heels spinning circles in the dirt, pivoting between pedestrians, changing directions.

* * *

‘Yell like we practiced!’

On the back side of Henry House Hill, Stonewall Jackson’s low growl carries. He tells his men to hold fire until they’re close enough to bayonet, and the lot of them lurches upward. Shelby Foote imagines Jackson then telling his men to “yell like furies,” but legend implies that he says something closer to “yell like we practiced!” This command would support the theory that the collective sound erupting from the mouths of the Stonewall Brigade is a dictated, spellable thing. A line to memorize, like “Attack!” or “Hut, hut, hike!”

It would also confirm that, somewhere between mustering up at Harpers Ferry and crossing the bridge at Bull Run, the Fourth Virginia had rehearsed their war cry, their world famous polar opposite to the “hip, hip, huzzah!” Jackson learned at West Point. It would prove that there was method to the unexpected sound that some say shifted this battle’s advantage to the Confederates. It would validate the notion that, yes, a soldier’s throat hits specific notes when it sings of brutality, and Stonewall Jackson—silent, biblical, obsessive—was just the man to score them into a particular order and cadence.

Muskets quiet, they crest the hill, bridging the gap between the enemy and themselves with sound. It is the first major battle of the first and only War Between the States—and the first recorded appearance of the yell. About the time Jackson’s men run down the hill, the remaining Union troops—exhausted, confused and ill-informed—back the hell away from that sound and from its corporeal presence.

The Union retreat is called the “Great Skedaddle.” The Southern war cry is called “the pibroch of the Confederacy.”

Or, if you are Indiana Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce, “The ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard.”

Or, if you are Stonewall Jackson, “The sweetest music I ever heard.”

* * *

Four years later, Whitman hears tell of Sherman’s troops, after the fire, hanging a left at Savannah. When they receive the news of Appomattox, these Union soldiers yell for miles; they yell across two Carolinas, necks straining toward the Mason-Dixon like horses that can see the barn. Whitman rewords the sonic moment twenty years after the fact: “at intervals all day long sounded out the wild music of those peculiar army cries.”

No one cared to investigate the exact shape of this joyful Union yell—the placement of the palate, the vowels involved, the pitch or the rhythm. We’re happy to hear from Whitman that, just like his newsboys or his hotel recitation, voices sounded, and those voices eventually stopped.

Sometimes, however, a vocal moment is not so lucky.

Why can we let some parts of history live locked in the figurative while insisting others be specified? Why can we hear The Shot Heard ’Round the World without spending centuries wondering what it sounded like, desperate to know for certain whether Charleston shook with a “Boom,” a “Thud,” or a “Ker-blam”?

* * *

The Southern soldiers cannot cheer,” writes a London Times reporter named William Howard Russell in 1861. “What passes muster for that jubilant sound is a shrill ringing scream with a touch of the Indian war-whoop in it.” Russell is one of the five hundred civilians, dozens of them politicians, who plan a picnic on the banks of Bull Run to watch what was forecast to be a swift Union victory. They watch their picnic morph into a long, loud battle with a panicked finale. Over the course of this hot day, fifty or so of the group make their way even closer to the battlefield, so that, when the bridge falls, they are trapped on the wrong riverbank alongside the fleeing Union soldiers. Russell and four senators are among these fifty, all of whom are probably within earshot of that first concentrated Confederate yell.

Shortly thereafter, descriptions of the yell begin appearing in British newspapers, publishing houses, and women’s magazines. It is the English, not the Americans, who give the yell its first mythic punch. Englishwoman Catherine C. Hopely publishes an account of First Manassas, noting that a particular “shout of triumph” caused the Union soldiers to be “overpowered by terror. One frightened company infected the rest, and the result is known.” Officer Fitzgerald Ross tells Blackwoods Magazine that the cry is a “terrible scream … a real Southern yell which rang all the way down the [Confederate] line.” Bell Irvin Wiley takes a recipe approach:

“It had in it a mixture of fright, pent-up nervousness, exultation, hatred and a bit of pure deviltry.”

The Brits are even the ones who give the yell its name. British officer and military reporter Arthur Fremantle notes in Three Months in the Southern States that “the Rebel yell has a particular merit, and always produces a salutary and useful effect upon their adversaries.” To him, the Yell of the Rebels sounds more like an expression of “delight.” Other dispatches treat the newly named Yell as if it is a novel kind of modern weaponry, a technological advancement on par with the Williams breech-loading rapid fire gun or Professor Thaddeus Lowe’s Enterprise, the hot air balloon commissioned by the Union for scouting. Other times, the Yell is apprehended like rare birdsong, at Chancellorsville, at Brandy Station, at Kennesaw, at Second Manassas.

Several dozen of these later reports use words suggesting a high pitch to describe the cry, calling it “shrill” or “shrieking” or “womanish.” Some compare it to the sound of a rabbit in mortal peril. More specifically, the cry reflects the particular perils of marching in a Confederate line. Lumped into companies with mismatched uniforms, their soldiers haven’t the luxury of standing in Academy ranks and learning how to plant their feet. How to grip with the diaphragm and let loose an earthy “Huzzah!”

The West Point huzzah that the Union still carries is much more rightfully called a yell: forceful, loud, and well-supported. It ends on a stretchable vowel, the mouth open, relaxed, haughty. But the Yell, at least in the eyes of the descriptive Brits, is wilder—why else would they compare it to funeral mourners, defenseless bunnies, or the “weaker sex”? Perhaps the sounds are those of victimhood. How might you attack an adversary who approaches, bayonet at the ready, while screaming like you have already wounded him?

In a way, screaming is biologically designed to support this muddled expectation.

In order to be effective, a huzzah-like yell must speak of a planted, specific, confident place, but a scream must appear out of place. In fact, the violent rush of a scream’s terrified air finds unexpected pockets of the throat and mouth to inhabit. Fear lifts the palate and quickens the speed of exhalations, making victims hit pitches higher than their “natural” voices. This seriousness is a reflection of the body’s strained and frantic state, carried across distances, cutting through the noise of cannon fire and horses to locate help. It is, essentially, the sound of the self trying to move when its body cannot run away.

* * *

Imagine watching Jackson’s men emerge from the smoke, zooming toward you as if pulled on dollies. Their mouths and teeth are black from biting off the tops of gunpowder cartridges, and those smeared black mouths are wet and open, singing like very frightened things, underscoring their fight with the sounds of flight. As they devour the distance between you and them, you know that this is the moment you should devote to firing or running. Instead, you find yourself staring, thinking.

Lord in heaven, you say to nobody in particular. How does a body go about attacking a bunch of freaks like this?

And then, to your left, there is William Russell on the crumbling bridge, pen in hand, watching your unwounded Union soldiers leap into hospital carts and cower. Perhaps he, in turn, wonders, “How can I possibly put this on paper so that no one will forget it?”

* * *

When the nineteenth century rolls into the twentieth, Rebel Yell detectives become less interested in describing the Yell and more interested in spelling it. This happens concurrently with the publication of many Confederate veterans’ memoirs and also with the Civil War becoming a go-to setting for popular fiction and film. There is a spelled-out Yell in Gone With the Wind. The mad preacher in Light in August hears one. Retired Colonel Harvey Dew spells it “Woh-who-ey! who-ey! who-ey,” offering step-by-step instructions in Century Illustrated magazine: “Sound the first syllable short and low, and the second ‘who’ with a very high and prolonged note deflecting upon the third syllable ‘ey.’” There is no record of Century Illustrated’s subscribers practicing the Yell at home.

In 1952, Yankee humorist H. Allen Smith drives south on The Saturday Evening Post’s dime. Once he crosses the Mason-Dixon, he begins asking “experts” in several states to Yell for him, hoping to land on a unified, spellable sound to add to the American lexicon. The war is almost a century old, barely a shadow in the living memory. Many aspects of both this war and the whole of the pre-Reconstruction South have already dissolved into paraphrase, or worse, into the funhouse mirror of hyperbole. “On the brash assumption that there is going to be a posterity,” Smith writes, “I believe that posterity will be immensely curious about this matter.”

Commonalities of spelling aren’t easy to come by. According to Smith, the Yell of the Charleston lawyer (“Yuhhhhhh-wooooo-ooooooo-eeeeeeeeeeeeee-UH!”) is spelled differently from that of the Virginia historian (“Yeeeeeeee-ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”) or the Chapel Hill salesman (“Whooooooooooooooo-wow!”).

Perhaps then, there never really was a unified Yell, just a few million Southern troops opening their mouths and letting rip the loudest sound they could (literally) stomach. This would render the Rebel babble more like Babel. But Smith presses on, adapting his short article into a book, refusing to admit that no one real sound ever existed. Because where’s the fun in that?

A newspaperman in Virginia Beach offers Smith another take on the Yell, that of the universal battle cry: “The Persians yelled the Rebel Yell at Thermopylae and the Spartans yelled the Rebel Yell right back at them. The British grenadiers yelled it at the Balaklava and the Russians screeched it right back. The communists in Korea today are yelling it at us, and we are not answering with mumbles. And you know very well that if a wave of our boys came charging across the fields, shrieking the Rebel Yell, the Yankees didn’t greet them with silence.”

* * *

Back at Bull Run, the Union troops are dehydrated and exhausted from their twenty-mile walk. It’s already four o’clock, and they haven’t won yet. Many of them were told this war wouldn’t last more than two months. Now they’re knee-deep in cannon smoke, shooting their own men because they can’t distinguish between the color of their enemy’s uniforms and the color of their own. They stand on the other side of Henry House Hill, yelling.

“Betrayed!” they say, shooting the sound toward their fellow officers, at God, at the rich picnickers they spot in the distance. A few hours later, they break formation and run back to Washington, yelling together once again. William Russell calls them “a shouting, screaming mass of men on foot, who were literally yelling with rage.” One would presume that this kind of rage also cannot be spelled. But for some reason, these yells are much less famous.

* * *

Three years after the death of the last Civil War veteran, linguist Allen Walker Read publishes an article in American Speech that extensively outlines the Rebel Yell as a “linguistic problem,” one that looks so ugly in written form because it lives outside the conventional parameters of language. “The syllables found in words like ‘hip,’ ‘huzzah,’ ‘hooray’ clearly fall within the pattern of English,” Reed says. “The same can be said of the college yells of the present day, as in ‘Bocka-wocka-choom; bocka-wocka-cha; bocka-wocka, chocka-wocka, sis-boom-bah.’”

The Yell, however, while just as nonsensical as a fight song, doesn’t mimic any established consonant-vowel pairings. This is only one of the reasons why no standardized Yell can ever be decided upon. In a five-part proof of the Yell as an anomaly, Read calls it “a total organismic response,” one involving more body parts than just the voice box. The ability to Yell “completed the full involvement of the whole soldier,” Read posits. “I believe,” he says, “that the true rebel yell occurred only under the excitement and tension of the battlefield, and therefore the real thing has not been heard since 1865.”

Read’s treatise, however, doesn’t stop historians, reenactors, and linguists from trying to capture the Yell. They vow to trap it—an auditory lightning bug in a jar—and transport it straight into the digital age.

* * *

Of the three known recordings of Confederates Rebel Yelling, two now live online.

Of these, one sound bite is at least partially the work of several reenactors, who, after a few jovial “Hoot-hoo-hoo-hoos,” giggle at each other. “’At’s uh Ribble Yill! Hee, hee, heee!” says a voice close to the microphone. He sounds more like a cartoon prospector than a soldier. No one would ever turn tail for this uninspired whooping. Still, this is the same clip that appears in Ken Burns’s documentary on the war, and for that reason, many take this Yell as gospel.

Its competitor is a single-voiced Yell by Thomas Alexander, a veteran of the Thirty-seventh North Carolina, who removes his dentures before yelling in a Charlotte radio studio in 1935. This sound, high in pitch and very un-spellable, is much weirder—but decidedly fiercer: a kelpie having a 100-decibel asthma attack.

Regardless of their direct experience of Yelling on the battlefield, none of these geriatric veterans, with their stringy diaphragms and arid larynges, can make the same sound as a pink-lunged boy in 1863. Further, no resting body reverberates in the same way as an active body—hopped up on adrenaline, barreling downhill, heart bursting, tongue rotting in powder—carrying both itself and the nation into a different kind of warfare for the first time.

* * *

Perhaps, however, it’s neither the spelling nor the actual sound of the Yell that holds people’s interest. Maybe the sound of the phrase “Rebel Yell” is what compels us to keep it around. Maybe we owe our debt not to Jackson, but to Arthur Fremantle, who left Manassas, went home, and wrote a perfect piece of speech to describe a cry that can’t be typeset. “Rebel Yell” has proven consistently fun to say—it hasn’t left the pop-culture vocabulary in 150 years. Now it is most often mentioned in contexts miles from any battlefield.

Just reading the phrase “Rebel Yell” is a little thrilling. One’s eyes leapfrog from vowel to vowel, hurdling the tall stems of each consonant. When voiced, those consonants pool air and tone in the front of the mouth. They are revved by the opening “R,” volleyed back by the “b.” The “Y” boomerangs that last, perfect short “e” to the lips, and the low-growled double “ll” coaxes it right back, cocking the mouth. The phrase has the rhythm of Mozartian themes and galloping hoofbeats. Does any gibbered war cry deserve a name that’s so fun to say?

Or maybe the sound, whatever it was, did beget such a perfect piece of prose for its title. Perhaps the Union was licked at Manassas by style rather than sound. What if the Yell, more than being shrill, or wild, or womanish, actually rocked? After all, Bob Marley pooled some of the best noises he could make into an album called “Rebel Music.” It can’t be a coincidence that the Hamburglar, the coolest character ever to peddle fast food, says “Robble Robble.” And who in their right mind wants to imagine Billy Idol singing about a “babe” who, “in the midnight hour,” cried “more, more, more” with a “Yankee Huzzah?”

Once entirely pejorative, American culture now embraces the term “rebel.” The phrase “Rebel Yell” now comes with an extra century-and-a-half of music in front of it, a hypertext of alternate meanings between the words and First Manassas.

When I imagine a rebel on the banks of Bull Run, James Dean is there—a civilian redcoat.

David Bowie’s “hot tramp” rides the Bull Run bridge in a torn and tacky dress, drinking a glass of bottom-shelf gutter bourbon, and screaming along with thousands of soldiers.

She yells, “He’s a rebel and he’ll never, never be any good.” She yells, “Hey, hey, hey! I was born a rebel! With one foot in the grave and one foot on the pedal.” She yells, “A cell is hell; I’m a rebel so I rebel.” For fifty years’ worth of pop music, she yells and yells and yells. And with that second word of the perfect phrase, “yell,” comes an even larger army.

jeams-dean

Cresting Henry House Hill, behind Jackson’s men, behind the screaming, resurrected General Bee, comes Diomedes of the Loud War Cry, his armor ringing out in sounds fifteen syllables long. Shakespeare’s Troilus chases him, shouting a war cry of his own: “False Cressid! False, false, false!” And behind them come epochs of soldiers—bleeding, yelling, running, firing, misunderstanding each other.

The Kamikazes yell, “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” in the roar of the word “Tora,” and their countrymen fill “Banzai” with the sound of ten thousand years. A celestial army evokes the name of their dragonslayer, “He Who Resembles God,” but the noise is heard as “Michael.” The Cavalry, never ones for subtlety, just yell, “Charge!”

The Fins yell, “Cut them down!” as the Fyrds yell, “Out, Out, Out!” and their syllables are nearly identical. A wall of Turks yells, “Ura!” while the Russians yell “Oruh”; the English yell, “Hoo-rah,” and our Marines counter with “Ooo-ruh,” all prompting an enemy body to rid itself of the life in its lungs.

And the Athenians shout, “Eleleu,” which is how Greek owls like to hoot. Because, whether “cocorico” or “cock-a-doodle-do,” the sun might not rise on them the next morning.

And when wounded, they all yell Ow! Joj! Array! Oof! Aix! Au! Auwa! Ack! and ¡Uy! before they hit the earth. Because, “Mayday” or M’aidez, theirs are the planes most likely to tip downward.

* * *

Originally published in The Normal School, 2010.