Colorized tintype of General Samuel Gibbs French.
Samuel Gibbs French was a native of New Jersey who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. In 1901, French published his memoirs in an effort to describe “some of the events of the Mexican and Confederate wars…” In his recollection of the Operations Around Marietta (June 9–July 3, 1864), French describes the “Rebel Yell” — the legendary battle cry of the Confederate forces.
French was born in New Jersey in 1818 and attended West Point. He graduated in 1843. 14th in his class, which also included Ulysses S. Grant. Like Grant and many of his classmates, Webb fought in the Mexican-American War. He made his way to the South after he married Eliza Roberts and acquired a plantation in Mississippi. When the Civil War started, French supported the Confederacy.
In his memoirs, French describes the Rebel Yell as “unearthly” in the aftermath of the battles around Marietta, including the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.
“I left Kennesaw with regret. From its slopes we repelled the assaults of the enemy, and from its top, where I loved to sit and witness the almost daily conflicts and hear the “Rebel Yell” from away down the throat, and the Federal cheer from the lips. The “Rebel Yell” was born amidst the roar of cannon, the flash of the musket, the deadly conflict, comrades falling, and death in front — then, when rushing forward, that unearthly yell rose from a thousand Confederate throats, loud, above ‘the thunder of the captains and the shoutings,’ and with the force of a tornado they swept on over the field to death or victory.
O how the heart throbs and the eye glares! As that yell is the offspring of the tempest of the battle and death, it cannot be heard in peace, no, never, never!
The Federal cheer lives on, and is heard daily in the land. That Confederate yell was never, as far as I know, made when standing still. It was really an inspiration arising from facing danger and death which, as brave men, they resolved to meet.
Ye children of peace can never hear it; wherefore I write of a sound that was produced by environment ye will never have. It died with the cause that produced it. The yell produced awe; the cheer indicated joy.”
Hear the Sound of the Rebel Yell
There is no recording of the “Rebel Yell” from the battlefield, so we have no way of knowing what it sounded like in the heat of battle. However, veterans of the Confederate Army were known to attempt to recreate the battle cry at reunions, which were held long after the Civil War ended. This video from Smithsonian Magazine includes clips of Confederate veterans demonstrating the Rebel Yell.