Anaconda Plan


The Anaconda Plan was the nickname attached to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott‘s comprehensive plan to defeat the Confederacy at the start of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Scott called for a strong defense of Washington, D.C., a blockade of the Confederacy’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and a massive land and naval attack along the Mississippi River aimed at cutting the Confederacy in two. Although United States president Abraham Lincoln immediately instituted a naval blockade, he bowed to political pressure in 1861 and shelved the rest of the plan. In retrospect, Scott’s strategy seems broadly prescient, although it aimed at political conciliation and did not anticipate the hard war fought in Virginia and elsewhere.

In 1861, Scott, a native of Dinwiddie County, Virginia, had been general-in-chief of the U.S. Army for twenty years. A hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War (1846–1848), and the Whig Party candidate for president in 1852, he was one of the most famous men in America and, despite age and infirmity, one of its best military minds. Recognizing that the Confederacy had no real navy at the war’s start, he called for a blockade of all Southern ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The idea was to isolate the Confederacy both diplomatically and economically, preventing it from exporting cotton and tobacco to Europe and importing weapons, foodstuffs, and other necessities. A massive invasion along the Mississippi River, meanwhile, would cut off vital transportation and communication routes for the Confederates and open them up for Union troops.

Scott’s war strategy anticipated realities that other military men and politicians were either unable to see or face. Scott predicted a two-year war when most were preparing for a single, decisive battle. Even though the Regular Army numbered only 16,000 men in 1861, he understood that as many as 300,000 Union soldiers would be necessary to defeat the Confederacy, and he braced the president for casualties numbering as many as a third of that. That he underestimated all of these figures hardly diminishes the plan’s prescience. The blockade, which Lincoln instituted beginning in April 1861, had much the effect that Scott intended. And when David G. Farragut captured New Orleans, Louisiana, in April 1862, and Ulysses S. Grant claimed Vicksburg, Mississippi, in July 1863, the Mississippi River belonged to the Union, creating logistical chaos for the Confederacy. What remained was, to some extent, a war of attrition in which Union men and matériel slowly overwhelmed the South.

General Winfield Scott

Still, the Anaconda Plan had problems. Scott’s military and political approach was essentially conciliatory. He assumed that the military only needed to create the right circumstances for Unionism to reemerge in the South. As such, he did not consider an approach that, by 1864, Grant and his generals deemed a necessity—a hard, or total, war attacking the Confederacy’s agricultural base and its will to fight. He did not plan for a long-term occupation of the South, and he failed to see at least one important effect of the blockade. Deprived of its cotton, Great Britain was, for a time, tempted to intervene on the Confederacy’s behalf, a development that might have been devastating for the Lincoln administration.

The Southern press understood this immediately and happily ridiculed the plan. Northern editors, meanwhile, sarcastically dubbed it the Anaconda Plan, after the snake that slowly squeezes its prey to death. The imperative of 1861 was action, and any plan that did not immediately strike at Richmond was unwelcome. Of course, Scott did call for a massive attack on the Confederacy, with anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 men in the Mississippi River Valley. But he recognized how critical it was to train those men, while Washington politicians preferred to fight sooner and closer to home. (The same was true in Richmond. The Confederacy’s third secretary of war, George Wythe Randolph of Virginia, advocated a focus on the Western Theater and was overruled by Jefferson Davis.) The cry of the day was “On to Richmond” and not “On to Natchez.” The Democratic Chicago Tribune, on July 15, 1861, sang a typically impatient refrain under the headline, “The Torpid Anaconda”: We are told that the “plan” is bold, vigorous and comprehensive, and cannot fail in its noble results to give great joy to the hearts of patriots, and spread consternation among the rebel host. Night after night has this comforting assurance been carried us on the wings of lightnings, until people have lost faith in electricity, and pronounce its statements unmitigated falsehoods. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, and the country impatiently demands to know the reason for the procrastination.

In the end, Lincoln approved the Union strike that led to the First Battle of Manassas on July 21. It was a disaster for the Union.

  • Eisenhower, John S. D. Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Anaconda Plan. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/anaconda-plan.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Anaconda Plan" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 22 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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