Civil War Memes

Brooks Simpson asks why specific claims persist in Civil War studies even after they’ve been challenged by careful research:

Why would one want to continue to use a story that is not only not
supported by evidence, but rather clearly contradicted by it, and where
the veracity of the account in which the story appears is questionable,
to say the least?

You tell me.

I just finished reading Jennifer L Weber’s fine study of the Copperheads (Oxford University Press) and in her comments about Cold Harbor she lays out the standard story of soldiers stitching their names  in their coats for identification following the battle and 7,000 Federals killed in less than an hour.  Both of these stories have been challenged by Gordon Rhea.  Other examples include the tendency to see Gettysburg as the "high-water mark" of the Confederacy or states rights as the cause of secession.  Brooks cites a story between Lincoln and Alexander McClure that continues to find a home in histories even though they’ve acknowledged the research that challenges the claim.  Countless other examples abound in the literature.  While sloppy research and a lack of awareness are no doubt involved it is worth exploring another possibility.  In this case it is the idea of the meme.

From Wikipedia:
The term "meme" (IPA: [miːm], not [mɛm], or [mimi]), coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, refers
to a unit of cultural information transferrable from one mind to another.
Dawkins said, Examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions,
ways of making pots or of building arches.
A meme propagates itself as a
unit of cultural evolution analogous in many ways
to the gene (the unit of genetic information). Often memes propagate as
more-or-less integrated cooperative sets or groups, referred to as
memeplexes or meme complexes.  The idea of memes has proved a successful meme in its own right, achieving a
degree of penetration into popular culture rare for a scientific theory.

Proponents of memes suggest that memes evolve via natural selection — in a way very similar to Charles Darwin’s ideas
concerning biological evolution — on
the premise that variation, mutation, competition, and "inheritance" influence their
replicative success. For example, while one idea may become extinct, other ideas will survive, spread and mutate — for better or for worse —
through modification.  Meme-theorists contend that memes most beneficial to their hosts will not
necessarily survive; rather, those memes which replicate the most effectively
spread best; which allows for the possibility that successful memes might prove
detrimental to their hosts.

And which memes "replicate the most effectively" in the Civil War community?  Well, it seems to me those that reinforce the stories that its readers and even researchers want to hear.  We are indeed emotionally attached to certain strands of thought from our Civil War.  You can see it at Civil War Roundtables where the audience waits on the edge of their seat to hear the standard story that will reinforce childhood stories.  Perhaps these memes persist because most Civil War enthusiasts (reader or writer) do not see the Civil War as history (strictly understood) but as entertainment or heritage.  In the end, it makes for a better story.  What’s the Civil War without the story of those soldiers stitching their names into their coats so that their bodies can later be identified?


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