“The famous Confederate ‘Rebel Yell’ is just one of many battle cries that have been heard on history’s killing fields. Consider these.”
CIVIL WAR HISTORIAN Shelby Foote once remarked that any Union soldier who heard the notorious Confederate battle cry, known as the “Rebel Yell”, and said he wasn’t scared by it had probably never heard it.
The famous high-pitched shriek was described by some veterans of the conflict as a having a sort of “woo-who-eeee” cadence; others characterized it more as a “yeee-haw.” One account of the Rebel Yell comes from a report that appeared in the New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune Reporter.
“It paragons description,” wrote the correspondent. “How it starts deep and ends high, how it rises into three increasing crescendos and breaks with a command of battle.”
The banshee-like wail was certainly enough to curdle the blood of all within earshot. In fact, one Union officer at Chickamauga said it was “the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard.”
The earliest records of the Rebel Yell emerged from the Battle of Bull Run when members of Stonewall Jackson’s brigade gave the holler while charging Yankee lines on Henry House Hill. But despite its appearance at the conflict’s inaugural clash, the famous Southern battle cry’s origins supposedly can be traced to before the War Between the States.
It’s been suggested that the Rebel Yell was inspired by Indian war whoops — something well known to many Americans who came of age on the frontier. Another theory posits that the cheer was derived from the howling of backwoods hunting dogs. Some have even speculated that it was based on ancient Gaelic or Celtic war calls and was brought to the New World by Scottish and Irish immigrants, many of whom settled in the Southern states in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Regardless of its origins, the famous Rebel Yell is just one of many battle cries that have been heard on history’s killing fields. Consider these:
It’s all Greek to me
Ancient Greek hoplites were known to have shouted the name of a female deity known as Alala when in battle. A daughter of the martial spirit Polemos, the word literally meant “war cry” and shouting it was supposed to curry the favour of the gods. As recently as the Second World War, Greek soldiers invoked the mythical moniker in the heat of battle to summon of courage and strength, much like their Classical ancestors would have done.
“God wills it!”
Medieval Crusaders were known to yell “Deus vult,” Latin for “God wills it” while in the thick of the action — not unlike today’s Jihadists who call out the phrase “Allāhu Akbar” or “God is great” before martyring themselves for their cause.
The Mongols of the 13th Century were supposed to have shouted “Uukhai” as they rode into combat. Interestingly, the word is reportedly still barked out at traditional Mongolian archery competitions when a contestant hits his mark. The word itself can roughly be translated as “hooray” or even “hallelujah.”
“God and my right”
Ironically, England’s Edward III used the French phrase “Dieu et mon droit“ or “God and my right” to rally his troops during the pivotal 1346 Battle of Crecy. Those very words would later become the motto of the English monarchy. They appear on the Royals’ coat of arms to this day.
“For the King and for France”
Speaking of royalty, soldiers who fought for the Bourbon Monarchy of France were know to call out “Pour le Roi et Pour la France” or “for the king and for France” as they attacked. Later, Bonaparte’s troops famously unnerved their opponents by chanting “Vive L’Emperor” or “long live the emperor” to the sound of the drums as they advanced across the field.
Japanese soldiers during World War Two shrieked a similar sentiment as they charged into American machine gun fire during the war in the Pacific: “Tenno heika banzai” or “long live the Emperor.” At Saipan in 1944, more than 4,000 Imperial soldiers shouted those words as they undertook a massed suicide attack against U.S. Marines on the island. It was the largest bayonet charge of World War Two.
“Remember the Alamo!”
“Remember the Alamo” was the phrase on Texans’ lips during the decisive 1836 Battle of San Jacinto. Sam Houston’s men screamed it at the top of their lungs during their surprise assault on an army of encamped Mexican troops that only weeks before had ruthlessly slaughtered the defenders of the famous fortified mission at San Antonio. The Texans were in no mood for mercy as the 20-minute fight unfolded that day; they butchered more than 600 of the enemy while losing just nine of their own.
“Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg”
Revenge was also on the minds of the defenders the Union lines at Gettysburg as a force of 15,000 Confederate troops stormed Cemetery Ridge during what is now known as Pickett’s Charge. Yankee soldiers chanted the single word “Fredericksburg” over and over as they poured a murderous fire into the advancing Rebels. The previous December, many of those very same Northern regiments had advanced through a deadly torrent of hot Southern lead just outside of the Virginia town. The survivors of the ill-fated December 1862 assault were only too happy to repay their enemies in kind seven months later.
And finally, ever since World War Two, American paratroopers have cried out the name of Apache war chief Geronimo when leaping from their aircraft. The tradition was started by a private named Aubrey Eberhardt who was taking part in some of the U.S. Army first airborne test jumps in 1940 at Fort Benning, Georgia. The young trooper hoped to show his squad-mates that he wasn’t terrified at the prospect of hurling himself from a plane. “To prove to you that I’m not scared out of my wits when I jump, I’m gonna yell ‘Geronimo’ loud as hell when I go out that door tomorrow,” Eberhardt reportedly vowed. The term caught on and continues to be used to this day. It’s certainly better known than the 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment’s battle cry “Currahee,” which is the name of the Georgia foothill recruits to the famous outfit were ordered to run up during training.
Did we miss any? Don’t be angry, be heard! Add your suggestions to the comments below or Tweet them to us @milhistnow.
(This article was originally published by MilitaryHistoryNow.com on April 24, 2015)