Those in our modern era who aren’t necessarily versed in history may hear the phrase “Rebel Yell” and think only of the 1980s Bill Idol song…and not make any connection whatsoever to the Civil War a century and a half ago. And in fact, the Billy Idol song is supposedly referring to Rebel Yell bourbon whiskey, not the long-ago battle cry of the Confederate soldier in the midst of combat.
But for purposes of this post; and historical perspective; and remembrances of the Civil War and all that, the Rebel Yell was indeed the battle cry (or one of the battle cries) of the Confederacy during engagements against Union troops.
Which brings us to 1913 and the Great Reunion.
According to the official Pennsylvania Commission report on the Great Reunion that was published at the end of 1913, during the first day’s ceremonies on July 1, 1913, the following statement was made by Bennett Young, the Commander of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) just before his speech:
“Comrades, I can give you something that no one else in the world can give you, and, in recognition of the splendid hospitality of this great Commonwealth, extended from the Governor, we propose to give him the Rebel Yell!”
The proceedings continue with the statement within parentheses (transcribed directly from that magnificent book):
“(Whereupon every Southerner in the audience responded, and the Great Tent resounded with the familiar yell.)”
Think about it.
Here they were – more than 50,000 Civil War veterans, the Union ones outnumbering the Confederate ones by about 4-1 or 5-1 – and in the midst of the opening ceremonies on the bloodiest battleground of the war fifty years earlier, that once-feared battle cry rang out from those “old Rebs” not in prelude to combat but rather in tribute to the Governor of Pennsylvania, John K. Tener, who presided over the final years of preparation as well as the Great Reunion itself.
In the recently published Part II of my novel Gettysburg, 1913: A Novel of the Great Reunion I had to make reference to this particular moment from the first day’s official ceremonies. I have James Schoonmaker, the Pittsburgh industrial tycoon, Medal of Honor recipient, and Chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission for the Great Reunion sitting next to Governor Tener (see our post back in January, 2013 about James Schoonmaker as well as our post the same month about John K. Tener) on the stage as the request from UCV Commander Bennett Young goes out to his former comrades in arms. To set the stage, whereas James Schoonmaker was a Civil War veteran, John K. Tener was much younger: born in Ireland in July of 1863, barely several weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg took place.
The exchange in the novel goes like this:
“In response to those words, the thousands of Confederates in the Great Tent did exactly as requested: they let out a mighty reprise of their Rebel Yell, directed in honor of Governor Tener. More than a few Union veterans in the tent felt instantaneous shivers at the first notes of that sound in remembrance of days past, though James Schoonmaker leaned over to Governor Tener, seated to the Colonel’s left, and said: ‘Well, John, imagine that you had been born twenty years earlier and we were fifty years in the past; this sound would have brought you face to face with the specter of Death himself!'”
To get an idea of what that sound must have been like, you can check out this incredible video on YouTube (present at the time this post was made) from Smithsonian Magazine entitled “Rare Footage of Civil War Veterans Doing the Rebel Yell” at this URL: