History of the Ninth Virginia Cavalry, in the War Between the States/Appendix–The "Yankee" and "Rebel" Yell

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(From the Century Magazine for April, 1892.)

During and since our late war, the "Rebel" and "Yankee" yells have been frequently referred to, but their true character and essential differences have not, so far as I know, been clearly presented.

I was recently asked to say something upon this subject before the society of "The Virginians," on the occasion of its annual banquet in New York, and the substance of what was then stated is given below.

J. Harvie Dew.

There is a natural tendency in the minds of most men, as they move onward along the "River of Time," to forget, or in a great measure to obliterate from their memories, unpleasant things, and, on the contrary, to recall and treasure those that have contributed to their joys, comforts, and successes. With no one is this peculiarity more marked than with the old soldier. When he talks of his war experiences, it will constantly be found that his trials, privations, discomforts, and disappointments, have been largely forgotten or overshadowed by the memory of his comrades, of social gatherings around the camp-fires, of songs that were sung and stories told, of adventures and narrow escapes, of battles lost and victories won.

Among the incidents of active service there were probably no events more thrilling and more exciting to the soldier than those of a charge, for in its dash there were displayed not only the boldness and the fury of the occasion, but, of necessity, much of the savagery of war.

It was in the charge that the "war-whoop" was heard, the savage "yell" with which men wild in battle endeavored to send terror to the minds of their enemies.

Each foe, in every clash of arms, sought to arouse all of the military energy, the enthusiastic vigor, the martial spirit, and the determined endeavor, which could possibly impress upon its enemy the overwhelming force with which its charge or its resistance was made, and no feature added more to the accomplishment of this purpose than the enthusiasm of the yell.

I was a member of the Ninth Virginia Cavalry, a follower of Stuart and his successors, and on many a well-fought field I have seen, listened to, and participated in charge after charge. The defenders of old Virginia were not by any means successful at all times in defeating their adversaries, and not infrequently by force of circumstances were induced to take their turn in a more or less graceful "skedaddle." Whenever I was one of the "skedaddling corps," I found some consolation in recalling a little family incident.

My grandfather was an officer in the war of 1812. Once in his old age, while relating to a number of his grandchildren gathered around him some of his experiences in war, he told of an encounter with the British in which his troops were forced to retreat in decided haste. One of the little boys who had been listening, with his mouth agape, no doubt, in the intensity of his interest, asked, "And, grandpop, did you run?" The old man replied, "Ah, yes, my child; and braver men than your grandfather ran that day."

That there existed a marked difference between the yells of the opposing armies during our late war was a recognized fact, and a frequent source of comment. The notes and tones peculiar to each of them were well defined, and led to their designation as the "Yankee" and the "Rebel" yells. It is interesting to note some of the reasons why they differed so widely.

Southerners have always been recognized by those who have known them best as a people possessed of unbounded enthusiasm and ardor. They have been considered and often called a "hot-headed," a "hot-blooded," people. Among the rank and file, as well as among the officers, of the Confederate armies, were to be found men of intelligence, birth, position, and distinction in the communities in which they lived; men in whose veins ran the invigorating blood of the noblest ancestry; men who were proud in peace, courageous and fearless in war.

These peculiarities of birth, character, and temperament, coupled with the fact that they were cheifly an agricultural people inhabiting a broad expanse of country but thinly settled, and confined in no large numbers (comparatively) to the narrow limits that city and town life impose, had much to do with the developement of their soldierly qualities as well as of their capacity for yelling.

Life in the country, especially in our Southern country, where people lived far apart and were employed oftentimes at a considerable distance from one another, and from the houses or homes in which they ate and slept, tended, by exercise in communicating with one another, to strengthen and improve their voices for high and prolonged notes. A wider range to the vocal sounds was constantly afforded and frequently required.

The voices of women as well as of men were often utilized for "long-distance calls." It may be amusing to note the difference in intonation which, was usually exhibited by the sexes. When a man had occasion to summon any one from a distance, the prolonged tone was placed on the first note, the emphasis on the second; thus, "O———h, John!′" If a female called, the prolonged tone and the emphasis were both placed on the last note; thus, "You, John-n———y′!"

Hollowing, screaming, yelling for one person or another, to their dogs, or at some of the cattle on the plantation, with the accompanying reverberations from hilltops, over valleys and plains, were familiar sounds throughout the farming districts of the South in the days gone by. It used to be said of my father's old negro foreman that he could be distinctly understood a mile or more away.

Hunting, which was enjoyed and indulged in more or less by nearly every citizen of the South, was also conducive to this characteristic development.

I remember an amusing instance illustrative of this point. I was out on one occasion before the war with a party of gentlemen hare-hunting with hounds. No guns were allowed. I had taken with me a very bright and intelligent little negro boy, who had become for a time separated from me. Later, while the dogs were chasing the hare from thicket to thicket, from meadow to woods, I came to a small open space surrounded by "old-field pines," and "broom-sedge" which had been cultivated in corn during the previous season. There, in the sunshine, unconscious of the presence of any one, sat the little darky packing damp sand over his foot, and withdrawing it–building what the boys called "frog-houses." Just then one of the huntsmen saw the hare, and gave a most vigorous vocal outburst, yelling for the dogs, "Here-here, here-here, here-here!" etc., endeavoring to place them still closer in pursuit. The little negro, without removing his eyes from the work with which he was occupied, simply uttered a most significant comment; he exclaimed, "Humph! Good gracious! dat man certainly kin holler."

The Federal, or "Yankee," yell, compared with that of the Confederate, lacked in vocal breadth, pitch, and resonance. This was unquestionably attributable to the fact that the soldiery of the North was drawn and recruited chiefly from large cities and towns, from factory districts, and from the more densely settled portions of the country.

Their surroundings, their circumstances of life and employment, had the effect of molding the character and temperament of the people, and at the same time of restraining their vocal development. People living and working in close proximity to one another have no absolute need for loud or strained vocal efforts, and any screaming or prolonged calling becomes seriously annoying to neighbors. Consequently, all such liberties or inconsiderate indulgences in cities, towns, etc., have long ago been discouraged by common consent.

It is safe to say that there are thousands upon thousands of men in the large cities, and in other densely populated portions of the North, who have not elevated their vocal tones to within anything like their full capacity since the days of their boyhood, and many not even then.

To afford some idea of the differences between these "yells," I will relate an incident which occurred in battle on the plains at Brandy Station, Virginia, in the fall of 1863. Our command was in full pursuit of a portion of Kilpatrick's cavalry. We soon approached their reserves (ours some distance behind), and found ourselves facing a battery of artillery with a regiment of cavalry drawn up on each side. A point of woods projected to the left of their position. We were ordered to move by the right flank till the woods protected us from the battery, and then, in open field, within a few hundred yards of the enemy, we were ordered to halt and right dress.

In a moment more one of the Federal regiments was ordered to charge, and down they came upon us in a body two or three times outnumbering ours. Then was heard their peculiar characteristic yell—"Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!" etc. (This yell was called by the Federals a "cheer," and was intended for the word "hurrah," but that pronunciation I never heard in a charge. The sound was as though the first syllable, if heard at all, was "hoo," uttered with an exceedingly short, low, and indistinct tone, and the second was "ray," yelled with a long and high tone slightly deflecting at its termination. In many instances the yell seemed to be the simple interjection "heigh," rendered with the same tone which was given to "ray.")

Our command was alone in the field, and it seemed impossible for us to withstand the coming shock; but our commander, as brave an officer as ever drew a saber, frequently repeated, as the charging column approached us, his precautionary orders, to "Keep steady, boys! Keep steady!" and so we remained till the Federals were within a hundred yards of us. Then, waving his sword in air, he gave the final order, loud enough to be heard the field over: "Now is your time, boys! Give them the saber! Charge them, men! Charge!"

In an instant every voice with one accord vigorously shouted that "Rebel yell," which was so often heard on the field of battle. "Woh-who—ey! who—ey! who—ey! Woh-who—ey! who-ey!" etc. (The best illustration of this "true yell" which can be given the reader is by spelling it as above, with direction to sound the first syllable "woh" short and low, and the second "who" with a very high and prolonged note deflecting upon the third syllable "ey.")

A moment or two later the Federal column wavered and broke. In pursuit we chased them to within twenty feet of their battery, which had already begun to retreat. The second regiment to the right and rear of the battery then charged upon us, and for a moment we were forced back; but by that time our reserves were up, and we swept the field.

In conclusion, let us rejoice in the fact that war and its incidental accompaniments are with us only in memory, and let us hope for our loved country, and for ourselves, that peace, happiness, and prosperity will dwell with us and our children's children now and evermore.