The Anaconda Plan of the American Civil War


By Gary Gallagher Ph.D., University of Virginia

At the outbreak of the Civil War, experienced war heroes accompanied the Union. Winfield Scott had the realistic genius to plan a winning strategy: The Anaconda Plan. It wasn’t that simple, but not because the plan did not go well.

Concept art illustrating a scene from the American Civil War.
In 1861, conflicts between the North and South reached war level, and both sides began getting in formation to start a battle. (Image: zef art/Shutterstock)

In the 1800s, when Abraham Lincoln was recently elected, the United States had a sectional system. The Federals were in the North, and the 11 Confederate states in the South sought independence.

When the Confederate government changed the capital from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia, tensions rose higher. In 1861, conflicts between the North and South reached war level, and both sides began getting in formation to start a battle.

This battle did not end as expected and later turned into the Civil War.

Key Players and Beginning of the Civil War

The North sought a strategy that would force the rebellious states back into the Union. General Winfield Scott played a crucial role in devising a solution to this problem. He also had the significant task of advising Abraham Lincoln – the new president with almost no military experience.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

While Scott was deeply concerned with the safety of the capital in the North, his counterpart, Jefferson Davis, and his advisors had the same concern in Richmond. This concern remained as strong throughout the entire war.

The Confederacy, however, only needed to react right to what the North did. If the North did nothing and let the independence process continue, the Confederates would gain their full independence with no move.

Nevertheless, the North did not want to grant independence and was trying to defeat the Richmond government and unite the 11 seceding states back with the Union. Lieutenant General Winfield Scott was at the core of this plan.

Learn more about the election of 1860.

Lieutenant General Winfield Scott

One of the best portraits of Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott.
A picture of Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, made at West Point, N.Y., on 10 June, 1862. (Image: Charles D. Fredricks & Company/Public domain)

Scott was a General-in-Chief of the United States armies during the initial Union attempts, residing in Washington, D.C. He was an innovative combat leader in the War of 1812, and his experience in the army dated back to before that. He was an American war hero who captured the Mexican capital in one of the most brilliant campaigns in United States military history. The same campaign made the Duke of Wellington call Scott ‘the greatest soldier of the age.’

He had extensive experience in national affairs in general, not just military-wise. He was not only holding the rank that the sainted George Washington had held, but also a Whig who ran for president in 1852.

In terms of appearance, he was a six-feet-five-inch tall soldier in impressive uniforms. Ulysses S. Grant writes that Scott was ‘the finest specimen of manhood’ that anyone would envy. However, that was the days of yore. In 1861, he was a 350-pound (159 kg) old man, with several illnesses, who needed help getting up from his seat. Despite all these physical changes, his mind was still the same strategic sharp mind as the old days. So this fat old man developed a strategy called the Anaconda Plan.

Learn more about the soldiers of the Civil War.

The Anaconda Plan

In April and early-May of 1861, Scott proposed the plan that was not only the way to win the war, but also a prediction of how the fight would play out. Winning the war needed much time, and Scott made intelligent and realistic decisions, considering the time factor. He had learned a lot from his military experience, and he used it all in establishing this plan and explaining it to Lincoln and his government.

This time-consuming plan was called the Anaconda Plan. It consisted of different parts:

It began with a powerful move down the Mississippi River to dominate it and eventually split the Confederacy into two parts. The next step was blocking the coastline. The coast had strategic and financial importance for the Confederates. They shipped in the necessary material and exported cotton to get the money for buying the essential equipment from abroad. Without the port, the Confederacy would not have much chance of winning the war.

So the plan was called “Anaconda” to resemble how the Union planned to choke the Confederacy, just like an Anaconda chokes its prey. There was a ‘Plan B’ in the Anaconda, too:

If attacking and dominating Mississippi and the port blockade were not enough, the North would invade Richmond. The last step was two to three years away from the first step and needed 300,000 soldiers, as Scott put it. Back then, the United States Army had about 15,000 men.

The North was impressed by Scott and his plan, so they were writing about him. People could read about how the plan was being developed in newspapers. In addition to the North, the Confederates were also reading in the newspapers about Scott’s plan as he was developing it. But they were still waiting to see how the North took action.

Learn more about the crisis at Fort Sumter.

Execution of the Anaconda Plan

The plan was an amazingly realistic war masterpiece, but the public did not always like the reality. Lincoln was the non-military president of a non-military nation. People who read about Scott’s plan would look on the map and see Richmond is only a few days away. So why did Scott want to invade the same Richmond in three years?

Just take your army and march down to it!” people thought. The desire to reach Richmond as quickly as possible persisted throughout the war. The same Northern tendency put Virginia, Richmond and the Eastern Theater in the spotlight of the war for many of the future battles. The strip of ground between the Potomac River and the James River was where most of the battles took place.

A recreation of Abraham Lincoln delivering the famous Gettysburg speech.
This 20th century print with modern shows Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address at the dedication ceremonies at the Soldiers’ National cemetery on 19 November,, 1863. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Scott and other military figures knew well how long it took to train, prepare, and expand the army. Lincoln, however, believed that outnumbering the Confederates would lead to victory since both armies were as inexperienced.

The public wanted a quick and impressive victory, and they saw it in immediately attacking Richmond, which was 200 miles away. Lincoln, as the newly elected president, wanted to satisfy the Northerners. He also assumed that an early victory would dissuade the South from further rebellion.

In the end, despite all the military intelligence underlying the Anaconda Plan, most of the decision-makers decided to skip preparations and jump to its last step. Thus, troops started marching south to Richmond, to conquer it in a one-battle war.

Common Questions about the Anaconda Plan

Q: Why was Winfield Scott critical in the Civil War?

In 1861 Scott developed the Union strategy called the Anaconda Plan, which emphasized a coastal blockade and utilization of river systems in the South. He was one of the leading advisors to Lincoln on the outbreak of the civil war.

Q: What was General Winfield Scott’s strategy for winning the war?

Scott established the Anaconda Plan on the outbreak of the civil war. It included a naval blockade of the Confederate littoral, an attack down the Mississippi, and the strangulation of the South by Union land and naval forces. In case of an emergency, the troops were to march to Richmond and try to conquer the Confederate capital.

Q: What side was Winfield Scott on in the Civil War?

Winfield Scott was a General-in-Chief of the United States armies in the North. He was the one who established the Anaconda Plan.

Q: What does the Anaconda Plan mean?

The Anaconda Plan was a military strategy proposed by Union General Winfield Scott in the outbreak of the Civil War. The plan consisted of a naval blockade of the Confederate littoral, an attack down the Mississippi river, and constricting the South by Union land and naval forces.

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