One of the great things about doing historical research is the things you find purely by accident; little gems of information that few (if any) people have seen in decades. A great example is this article written by Frank H. Foote about the Rebel Yell. I found it purely by accident while looking for information on an entirely different Mississippi unit in the newspaper archive newsinhistory.com. (It’s a pay site, but the $9.95 per month is well worth the cost).
Frank H. Foote was born in Port Gibson, Mississippi, on January 27, 1843. His father, Julian Foote, was a prosperous carpenter, and at the time the war started, 18-year-old Frank was still living in his household. On September 3, 1861, Foote joined the “Claiborne Volunteers,” which became part of the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Battalion. In time the battalion was increased in size and renamed the 48th Mississippi Infantry.
Foote began the war a private and ended it a private four years later, surrendering at
Appomattox in 1865. A faithful soldier, his service record shows him as “present for duty” throughout the war. In later years, Foote began writing about his war experiences, and his articles were picked up by newspapers throughout the South. A prolific author, I have found close to a dozen newspaper articles written by Foote, and I suspect there are many more out there waiting to be found. The following article, published in the Macon Telegraph (Macon, GA) on May 1, 1912, is one of my favorites.
The Rebel Yell at Its Best
At the Reunion of Confederate Veterans, in the published reports thereof, we see it reported “that they gave the old rebel yell,” etc. If a band plays “Dixie” it is perfectly natural that not only the old soldiers, but every one else give vent to their feelings by shouts and yells. But that yell is no more a Confederate battle yell than it is a sermon, and for the sake of our sacred cause don’t any one claim an outburst a rebel yell. That yell is no more – dead as Hector’s pup and cannot be resurrected again, for the reason that there was a component part that greatly contributed to its effectiveness, and that was a battle field. One was essential to the other, and without either it becomes simply noise. That’s all.
“That yell was born in strife, amid the crash of bursting shells, crash of cannon; roll of musketry, the ping of the minie ball and the speed of a bullet as it found a human mark. The savage smell of exploding gunpowder, the scream of agony of the maimed, the dashing charge, the rout and pursuit,” these all contributed to the making of the yell now so closely identified to Confederate annals.
On many occasions I have heard it and helped it on the above conditions, but not once since the South surrendered. Since then it is only imitation, and flat at that. In the Wilderness, May 6, 1864, I heard it at its best. I will try to describe my impressions of it, as roughly written in 1912 and my memory still clings to it and its awful surroundings.
After the mantle of darkness had veiled the scene of so much woe, we were kept busy for a short time in rearranging our lines for the morrows conflict. It was between 9 and 10 o’clock when there suddenly arose a mighty yell from our lines. It was one of loud ringing triumph emanating from thousands of Confederate throats that drowned the sobs and wails of the sorely stricken in our sombre fronts of both armies. That historic yell arose from an excited state of consciousness of superior valor on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, who believed their foe crushed, that Gettysburg was avenged, and the confidence that in another day’s action would sweep Grant’s army out of the way and leave the way open for operations elsewhere.
This all-pervading spirit was enhanced when Gen. Harry Heath, a division commander of our corps, came dashing by in exciting careen exclaiming: “Grant is killed, the Yankees are whipped and are recrossing the Rapid Ann.” Then each individual took up the glad tidings and the dismal depths of the wilds of Spottsylvania re-echoed the joyous refrain. Thus it passed down the line, denoting its position and for the only time in the fluctuations of that remarkable battle was Gen. Lee’s lines definitely defined; it came surging now from the far right and rear, then deflecting toward the front, increasing in volume as it neared us of the center, its swelling cadences reverberating, now seemingly backward, then acutely to the front, then in a serious and distorted alignment passed away to the left until it was lost at the end of the line.
Many of that host of Union soldiers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia now alive recall that midnight yell, and here is what a Northern soldier remembers of it:
A High Falsetto Yell
F.S. White, bugler, 146th N.Y., 586 Second Avenue, Detroit, Mich., writes:
“The rebel yell was in the high falsetto voice, much like the scream of Indians or women. Ours was simply a grand hurrah in bass or baritone voice, not at all like the other shrill scream. In the evening of the second day at the battle of the Wilderness, perhaps about 9 o’clock, the rebels began a yell on the right of their line, which ran all the way up to their left, which from the sound appeared to be on somewhat higher ground. By this we could locate them exactly. The line seemed to be about three miles long. When they finished our boys took it up, and passed it down, good and strong all the way to our left. I never heard anything like it before or since.”
The sequel of that yell tells how several regiments of Federals gave way in confusion and sought safety in the rear, how others not so affected braced themselves for the fray and were only relieved of apprehension when the dying echoes of elated hearts ceased and quietness as a pall hung over both armies soon sleeping beneath the swaying pines.
I heard that yell again at Spottsylvania Court House when Harris’ Mississippi brigade went into that deadly salient and made good, and Confederates everywhere echoed that glorious charge by ringing yells of elation. Some of Mahone’s men at the last Reunion at Richmond told me how well they remembered that charge and recapture of the angle – taken that morning, and their terrible yells as they drove out the Federals. One said: “We were less than a mile on your right and knew your brigade had been sent for for desperate work, and we knew, too, if any command could retake the lost work it was Harris’ men. We heard you go in, we heard the awful roar of musketry, the cheers and huzzas of the enemy as he made charge after charge, and we listened with bated breath for news from Harris. It came in a great roar of yells that told that Harris had repulsed the attack and made good. He also said that his brigade simply went wild when after a most determined and obstinate assault the yell told of victory. Under such conditions the yell was genuine; under any other it is a fraud and imitation, and does the reporter who uses the phrase no good.
Late of 48th Mississippi Infantry, Harris Brigade, A. N. Va.
Vicksburg, Miss., April 30
After surrendering at Appomattox, Frank H. Foote returned home to Port Gibson. He
eventually married Bettie A. Cole, and had two daughters: Enola and Nora. Foote died on May 18, 1920, and is buried in Wintergreen Cemetery in Port Gibson.
Note: There has been much discussion among historians about what the Rebel Yell actually sounded like. Fortunately there are at least two recordings of Confederate veterans giving the yell, and in recent years the Museum of the Confederacy has used these recordings and some modern computer magic to recreate what a company of Confederate infantry probably sounded like while giving the Rebel Yell. It sent chills up my spine when I heard it, and if you would care to experience it as well, you can find it here: http://cwmemory.com/2010/02/28/exploring-the-rebel-yell-with-waite-rawls/.