The Anaconda Plan

Although George McClellan succeeded Winfield Scott as general in chief of the Union army in late 1861, Scott had already set a plan in motion that would, in one form or another, last the duration of the war. It was a plan that would be a factor in constricting the Confederate economy, choking the Confederacy into a defensive posture from which it would be impossible to escape.

Despite there having been tension between the two men, when Scott handed McClellan the reins and departed from McClellan’s new headquarters, McClellan wrote to his wife:

“The sight of this morning was a lesson to me which I hope not soon to forget. I saw there the end of a long, active, and industrious life, the end of the career of the first soldier of his nation; and it was a feeble old man scarce able to walk; hardly anyone there to see him off but his successor. Should I ever become vainglorious and ambitious, remind me of that spectacle.”[i]

Scott traveled from the train depot to New York, often dining at Delmonico’s and likely reflecting on his accomplishments from the War of 1812 to the Mexican-American War to the beginning of the latest war.[ii] He could take comfort in knowing that his plan “for total war,” colloquially known as the Anaconda Plan, was continuing to have its impact on the Confederacy, despite his not overseeing it.

An Illustration of Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan.

The Confederacy had the benefit of 3,500 miles of coastline, which included ten major ports, “180 inlets, bays, and river mouths navigable by smaller vessels.”[iii] Along the entire eastern seaboard, the Union navy had established a blockade to seal the Confederacy from trading with Europe.[iv] Then, 60,000 soldiers with gunboats had taken up protecting the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois all the way south to New Orleans.[v] The combination of constricting the Confederacy from east and west was intended to discourage the Confederates from continuing the war but also to inflame Union sentiment, which Scott estimated to be latent but capable of ending the war sooner than a march on Richmond.

Depiction of the Union Blockade. Harper’s Weekly. June 22, 1861.

The reception for Scott’s plan was cooler than he had hoped. In a misapprehension or perhaps a satire of the plan, one cartoonist portrayed him as the snake charmer, dressed in a turban and playing a flute as a cobra, representing the Confederacy, rose.[vi] McClellan vowed to march on Richmond with one final campaign, obviating any need for a longer term vision like Scott’s plan.[vii]

The leadership of both the Union and Confederacy admired the Anaconda Plan; albeit for entirely different reasons. President Abraham Lincoln did not need to be convinced of the plan’s merit: he studied it, and when the war began, he announced the blockade of the Confederacy.[viii] The Confederate leadership saw the Anaconda as instrumental in leading to a Confederate goal: foreign intervention, preferably by France or England.[ix] The Confederacy’s wealth of cotton fueled industry in England and provided hope for prosperity for the French, and the Union’s barring of its export to Europe would put pressure on England and France to intervene on the Confederacy’s behalf; a result that would as likely lead to negotiated peace as outright victory. The likelihood of intervention would have to wait, however: the previous year’s cotton crop had been sizable and had left French and English warehouses overflowing with 1860’s bumper crop.[x]

Ambrose E. Burnside. By: Mathew Brady.

Enforcing the plan began in 1861 with the Union navy seizing the Confederacy’s most reachable ports. One target was Roanoke Island, a swampy, ten-mile-long island that marked a passageway to Richmond.[xi] A Rhode Island man, who would become famous for his muttonchops so much that many a man continue to wear his namesake, Ambrose E. Burnside led a charge onto Roanoke Island with sixteen gunboats and 7,500 soldiers.[xii] Fighting in the swamps and overwhelming the rebel entrenchments, he captured 2,675 Confederates and only suffered 264 casualties; a small price to pay for a strategic advantage. Burnside, as a result of his victory, won promotion to major general, and the Union had taken a step toward solidifying its control of the Atlantic seaboard.[xiii]

With the introduction and implementation of Scott’s plan, the Union was enjoying successes even by the end of 1861 that would affect the Confederacy’s ability to survive, let alone win the war. Even with McClellan at the helm, Scott’s plan continued to be a factor. The imposition of the blockade and the taking of ports placed the Confederacy in a position where it had to use blockade runners or circumnavigate the blockade through disguised trading (such as through the Bahamas), an impediment to trade that the Confederacy could ill afford.

[i] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 111.

[ii] See id.

[iii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 369.

[iv] See id.

[v] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 111.

[vi] See id. at 112.

[vii] See id.

[viii] See id.

[ix] See id. at 113.

[x] See id.

[xi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 370.

[xii] See id. at 372.

[xiii] Id. at 373.

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