Craig Warren first heard the Rebel yell at Kings Dominion, an amusement park in Virginia. He was sitting near the back of a wood-track roller coaster, gripping the lap bar as the cars clattered into a tunnel, where everyone screamed.
That sound is always louder in the dark. As a Confederate battle cry, the Rebel yell – a yowling holler, equal parts hog call and Indian war whoop – was exaggerated by the smoke on Civil War battlefields. It unnerved Union soldiers, who heard the threat before they could pinpoint its direction.
Warren wasn’t thinking about that. To him, the “Rebel Yell” was a 95-mph thrill ride. The tunnel was fun.
The full story would come to him, however. South of the Mason-Dixon Line, it always does.
“I grew up in northern Virginia,” said Warren, an associate professor of English and professional writing at Penn State Behrend. “I went to Robert E. Lee High School. In that part of the country, Civil War stories are part of the air. You can’t escape them.”
His latest book, “The Rebel Yell: A Cultural History,” is the fullest picture yet of the Confederate rally cry. It traces the Rebels’ use of the yell – “the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard,” according to the writer Ambrose Bierce – through key battles at Manassas, Sharpsburg, and Honey Hill. It continues into Reconstruction, and on to the civil rights era, where the yell had divisive, and often racist, intent, and then watches as the tradition is co-opted, rebranded in the spirit of individual defiance in order to sell bourbon, records and roller-coaster rides.
Warren uses diary entries from both sides of the conflict to depict the yell’s effectiveness in battle. His real focus, however, is on how the war is remembered, and how the underlying conflicts even now are being contested.
“The same issues we fought over in the Civil War are in place in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Florida today,” he said. “These questions of race and individualism and the struggle against a faceless government are still very much alive in America.”
‘A defiant pose’
Unlike Union troops, who marched in unison, shouting “Hurrah! Hurrah!,” the Rebels’ yell was ragged, a mix of yips and barks and fox-hunter halloos. Every man’s was different.
In battle, the sound would ripple across the Confederate line, moving like the wave in a modern soccer stadium. Rebels used it to taunt, goad and intimidate their foes.
They also yelled to bolster their own morale. “It seemed to fill every heart with new life, to inspire every nerve with might never known before,” one veteran wrote.
A rousing yell was just as likely to come after battle, either in camp, where Rebels hollered tributes to their generals, or on forced marches, when they voiced resentment of those same men.
“The Rebel yell was a great metaphor for the south,” Warren said. “It was a defiant pose. The whole point, for them, was to secede from the whole.”
That aspect of the Rebel yell continued through the 20th century. When the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, split from its parent institution in Reno, the school chose as its mascot a cartoon wolf in Confederate dress. Its student newspaper was called “The Rebel Yell” – overlooking, perhaps, that Nevada had fought for the Union.
For the generation that followed, “Rebel Yell” was a song by a spike-haired rocker named Billy Idol. It made no reference to the Confederacy: Idol, a Briton, was instead celebrating a brand of bourbon he had watched the Rolling Stones drink.
Subsequent pop-culture references to the Rebel yell – a clothing line, a video game – also stripped it of Civil War context, choosing instead to embrace a spirit of general rebelliousness. Warren expects even more of that in the years ahead.
“You can’t get rid of it,” he said. “Rebellion will always be popular. So will making noise.”