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What is the Rebel Yell?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
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Confederate soldiers fighting Union troops during the American Civil War were often outnumbered and outgunned, but rarely without options. One unconventional weapon at their disposal was an intimidating battle cry known as the Rebel Yell. The actual sound of the cry is still a matter of dispute, but its effect on the morale of Union troops who heard it is said to be indisputable. Even the most seasoned Union officers were known to make an impromptu retreat at the sound of a Rebel Yell.

The origin of the Rebel Yell battle cry is not entirely clear, but several theories have been developed over the years. Some historians believe the cry was inspired by sympathetic Native American warriors who supported the Confederate cause. Indian warriors often let out a loud war cry as they approached an enemy, possibly to create confusion or intimidation. It is possible Confederate rebels adopted this practice in order to create the impression of a much larger invasion force.

The Rebel Yell has also been called the "pibroch of the Confederacy," which may offer a clue to its historical origin. Pibroch is an ancient Celtic word which translates to "song" in English. At the time of the American Civil War, the South was largely populated by descendants of Scottish and Irish clans, both of which preserved their Celtic origins. Celtic warriors who confronted the Roman army were known to wear nothing but blue body paint and employ a fierce, high-pitched battle cry.

Because very few authenticated descriptions of the real Rebel Yell exist, many legends have grown up around the facts. Some sources claim the battle cry was so incredibly intimidating that Union soldiers who heard it would immediately throw down their weapons and retreat to safety. Others suggest that certain Confederate regiments were especially good at delivering a convincing Yell, so they were often deployed as advance troops before a major engagement.

There are a few recordings of surviving Confederate soldiers delivering what they say was the authentic Rebel Yell, although many historians believe there were regional variants. These recordings reveal a battle cry very similar to the Native American war whoop, with a high-pitched three toned "hi EEE' ya!", not the cowboy-inspired "YEE HAW!" often heard in movies set during the Civil War.

Whatever the real Rebel Yell sounded like, it was apparently powerful enough to send chills down the spines of veteran Union commanders.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to America Explained, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon967805 — On Aug 29, 2014

I have read that a union soldier said of the yell, "If you say that you heard the rebel yell and wasn't scared, you ain't ever heard it."

The best I can get from my research is this: "Whooo weee how who whooowee!" And, "How who whooooo weee!" "Yeeee kip yeee kip yeeee!"

* Dog like bark* "who! Yeeeeeee yeeee!!!"

* Dog like bark* (twice) "whooooo *low doglike bark* whoo whooo weeeee!"

And lastly this is my version.

*Low dog like bark* "Whoo! Yeeee! *Low doglike bark whoo! Yeeeeeee yeeee!"

By anon350300 — On Oct 03, 2013

Here is my experiment as to what the "Rebel Yell" might have sounded like. I took recordings of former rebels done after the advent of recording, digitally multiplied them using digital recording software, and this is the result. Note: If you do not have quality speakers connected to your computer, it will probably just sound like static. This is estimated 1000 Rebs. I also did one with an estimated 10K men, but without quality sound equipment, it does sound exactly like static.

By anon348932 — On Sep 21, 2013

The yell is not ever the same. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers had different versions. Sometimes it was something like "YIP YIP KI YEEE KI YEEE" or "YEEEEEEWHO" and something like a dog bark or fox.

By Bertie68 — On Sep 17, 2011

No one seems to know for sure what the rebel yell sounded like or what the actual origin of it was. Both the story that it was borrowed from the Native American warrior's war hoop, and the story that it came from a part of the tradition of the Scottish clans, who settled in the south.

I like the story that the rebel yell came from the Scottish clans Celtic ancestors. The fact that the yell was also called the pibroch of the Confederacy makes it believable.

Since the Confederate Army was so often at a disadvantage in battles, they were smart to use a maneuver like the rebel yell to try to put the Union troops in a frenzy. I can imagine how an entire fighting force all yelling at the top of their lungs and the high and low tones of the three parts of the yell would sound very scary.

If the Union Army was completely surprised by the battle cry, they might have gotten a little crazy for a while until they calmed down. Yet, I doubt if they went so far as to retreat. Word probably got around pretty quickly that the south was using this tactic to gain advantage, so the north knew what to expect.

This is a very colorful part of our nation's history. I hope someone is preserving it, and all the stories that go with it.

By runner101 — On Sep 16, 2011

@Sinbad - Oh yeah, I definitely think that Rebel Yell has taken on quite a few different items that help confuse what it was originally. For instance there is a song by Billy Idol named Rebel Yell. There is also a line of clothing that is called Rebel Yell clothing. And last but not least there is Rebel Yell whiskey.

So one could definitely find themselves in your shoes, thinking it was a modern term, as opposed to a term coined from the Civil War.

By Sinbad — On Sep 16, 2011

I did not know that the term "Rebel Yell" was about the Civil War - I went to a school whose mascot was a Rebel so when we talked about "Rebel Yell" it meant our conduct during sporting events, so needless to say I feel a bit ignorant about it now.

However, I felt a little better when I was running with a few friends and we were all in a line because we were trying not to get hit by cars - and I ran from the back of the line to the front of the line, and we joked about turning our run into an "Indian run" which is the name of that style of running (when a person runs from the back of the line to the front and this continues until the run is over).

One of the girls admitted to thinking that the "Indian run" just had to do with her school because their mascot was the Indians.

Are there any other mistaken identities to the "Rebel yell'?

By seag47 — On Sep 15, 2011

The rebel yell reminds me of the eerie sound of a coyote pack. I live way out in the country, and I’m surrounded by pastures and forests. Just about every night, I heard a variety of yipping and shrieking. It is paralyzing, because I almost have to stop and listen to it out of curiosity and fear before running in the house.

I imagine that the Rebel yell might have sounded similar. I’m sure most of the soldiers, if not all of them, had heard coyotes before and knew how scary the sound could be. I believe that they mimicked this to intimidate their enemies.

By Kat919 — On Sep 15, 2011

I have to give a shout-out here to Paramount's Kings Dominion. They have the oldest roller coaster on the East Coast and it's called the Rebel Yell. Rattles like nobody's business, but wooden roller coaster aficionados can't get enough of it.

The first track has been there longer than I care to know before riding it, but they built a second track so that now you can ride it backward, too!

By bear78 — On Sep 14, 2011

I heard about the rebel yell from my grandfather. He thinks that it has origins from European armies, maybe from the Celtics or maybe the Vikings. I think that it's a completely unique yell. I don't think we could find the exact rebel yell elsewhere.

It probably was influenced by the European roots of the soldiers and what they learned from Native Indians, but I do think that the Confederate troops created their own rebel yell to use in the war. I don't think we need to worry about where the inspiration came from.

By burcinc — On Sep 14, 2011

I watched a reenactment of the Civil War and the guys who were enacting the Confederate soldiers had learned the rebel yell, or what the historians believe the rebel yell to have been.

It was truly amazing and spooky at the same time. They were doing three different sounds, first being a high pitched yell, a second one low pitched and the third one high pitched again. They were 400 men repeating these three different sounds over and over again at different rates.

If you heard just one person doing a rebel yell, it wouldn't be as effective. But hearing hundreds of men do it was really scary. It reminded me of sounds of wild animals, shrieks of eagles and roars of creatures all put together. I can't imagine anyone not being afraid of this sound. And what an intelligent way to scare off the opposing army!

By summing — On Sep 13, 2011

Sure, it seems silly to read about, but if you ever hear a bunch of people get going with this thing, you can see how it would be intimidating, especially in the heat of battle. No matter where your politics were (or are), I think that you can't help but have a primal response to a sound like that.

By gravois — On Sep 12, 2011

Its kind of a goofy idea to think of grown men screaming at each other as a tool of war, but when you think about it this is pretty common in the animal kingdom. It seems like many if not most animals have some kind of sound that they make to discourage predators. Think about a dogs bark or the awful sound that a cat makes when it is fighting. Sound is a powerful force.

By jonrss — On Sep 12, 2011

I used to live in South Carolina and my local watering hole was a bar called the southern pride. It was a pretty rowdy place, there were lots of bikers and working men and everyone came down to have a few too many and get a little silly.

It seemed like just about every time I was down there, right around midnight or at an appropriately late hour, someone would initiate a rebel yell. I was mostly just a loud holler but as soon as people caught on the would join in. Before you knew it 3/4 of the bar would be screaming at the top of their lungs.

I remember once I was walking down the road to come in for a late drink and heard the rebel yell coming out of the bar clear as day. Thing was, I was almost a mile from the bar, the yell was just so loud it traveled that far. If you put a bunch of drunk guys together and get them fired up about something they can really make a racket.

By serenesurface — On Sep 12, 2011

This is the first time I've heard about the rebel yell during the Civil War, but I'm not surprised.

I think it was common for troops to have a war cry when they're about to engage with the enemy. I'm sure that the rebel yell scared the Union troops, but it also helped by giving the Confederate troops a sense of strength, unity and fearlessness. I'm sure that the rebel had a very positive effect on the morale and energy of the Confederate troops. It might have helped them to fight better and be more successful.

I think this is more plausible than the Union troops immediately running away at hearing the yell. It might have been intimidating to them, but I think the positive influence on the Confederate troops who cried out the rebel yell is more significant.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to America Explained, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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