A Clear Take On The Rebel Yell

A 1930 video from the Library of Congress records Confederate soldiers, most in their 70s and 80s, performing the rebel yell. Guest host Linda Wertheimer talks to historian and author Fergus Bordewich about the origins of the unusual and complex sound.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The rebel yell, the Confederate soldiers' battle cry, is a sound we all know from westerns, in which it translates as a yee-haw. The Rebel yell was immortalized in the novel "Gone with the Wind" and in songs by Eminem and Billy Idol, who made it sound more like a yaaaaw. But if you want to know what the Confederate soldiers' war cry sounds like, now we have an idea, thanks to a film in the Library of Congress, which the Smithsonian has made available. It's a black and white, a clip from the 1930s of Confederate soldiers, most of them in their 70s and 80s by then, performing the Rebel yell as they did on the battlefield during the Civil War. Here's a sample.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ladies and gentlemen I have the pleasure of announcing to you that we are going to make an effort to repeat the old Rebel yell. One, two, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Charge 'em, boys, charge 'em.

WERTHEIMER: Joining us now to give us some context for those wild whoops is Fergus Bordewich. He is a historian and the author of several book of American history. He writes for the Smithsonian magazine. Welcome to our program.

FERGUS BORDEWICH: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the traditional yeehaw really does not begin to convey that battle cry. How should we have described it or transliterated it?

BORDEWICH: It apparently was something like a short war-whoop-like yelp repeated over and over very high-pitched and on the spot pretty terrifying by all accounts.

WERTHEIMER: That group yell, it sort of vibrates inside itself like a pack of wolves or coyotes or something when it becomes a scream. It's a very strange sound.

BORDEWICH: Well, it is. And if you can imagine, for example, let's say the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863 when 28,000 Rebel troops surprised the right wing of the Union Army coming out of the woods, whooping and yelling like this, it must have been a stunning and terrifying experience.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think the idea of the Rebel yell was to strike fear into the hearts of enemies or to get these guys so wound up they forgot about their fears?

BORDEWICH: I think both things are true. I should say there's no documented example of a Federal unit breaking and running simply because they heard the Rebel yell. But nonetheless, there are many, many, many references in letters and memoirs written after the war referring to the yell as something terrifying. On the other hand, they stood there and they fought and they were screaming just as well, although maybe not quite as innovatively as the Rebels.

WERTHEIMER: Well, we have a rendition of a 95-year-old veteran of the 37th North Carolina Regiment, and he has my complete admiration for being able to yell like this at his age. But this was in 1935, WBT Radio of Charlotte, North Carolina preserved this.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)

WERTHEIMER: That does make your blood run cold.

BORDEWICH: It does indeed. And, to me, it's extraordinary that we can even hear these voices. For us today, the Civil War exists in a realm of sort of sepia-toned myths. And here these people suddenly are close to us. Yes, a 1935 recording is a bit scratchy and so forth, but it's a real human voice. It's not a letter being read to you with a plinky banjo in the background 150 years after it's been written. It's a real human being talking to us.

WERTHEIMER: Historian Fergus Bordewich. His latest book is called "America's Great Debate." Thank you very much.

BORDEWICH: Thank you, Linda. It's been a pleasure.

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