The Anaconda Plan of 1861: Early Civil War Strategy

Cartoon map depicting General Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan
A cartoon map depicting the Anaconda Plan devised by General Winfield Scott. Getty Images

The Anaconda Plan was the initial Civil War strategy devised by General Winfield Scott of the U.S. Army to put down the rebellion by the Confederacy in 1861.

Scott came up with the plan in early 1861, intending it as a way to end the rebellion through mostly economic measures. The goal was to remove the Confederacy's ability to wage war by depriving it of foreign trade and the ability to import or manufacture necessary materials including weapons and military supplies.

The basic plan was to blockade the saltwater ports of the South and to stop all commerce on the Mississippi River so no cotton could be exported and no war material (such as rifles or ammunition from Europe) could be imported.

The assumption was that the slave states, feeling considerable economic punishment if they continued the rebellion, would return to the Union before any major battles would be fought.

The strategy was nicknamed the Anaconda Plan in the newspapers because it would strangle the Confederacy the way the anaconda snake constricts its victim.

Lincoln's Skepticism

President Abraham Lincoln had doubts about the plan, and rather than wait for a slow strangulation of the Confederacy to occur, he chose to do battle with the Confederacy in ground campaigns. Lincoln was also spurred on supporters in the North who aggressively urged fast action against the states in rebellion.

Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune, was advocating a policy summed up as "On to Richmond." The idea that federal troops could quickly move on the Confederate capital and end the war was taken seriously, and led to the first real battle of the war, at Bull Run.

When Bull Run turned into a disaster, the slow strangulation of the South became more appealing. Though Lincoln did not totally abandon the idea of land campaigns, elements of the Anaconda Plan, such as the naval blockade, did become part of Union strategy.

One aspect of Scott's original plan was for federal troops to secure the Mississippi River.

The strategic goal was to isolate Confederate states to the west of the river​ and make the transportation of cotton impossible. That goal was accomplished fairly early in the war, and the Union Army's control of the Mississippi dictated other strategic decisions in the West.

A drawback of Scott's plan was that the naval blockade, which was declared essentially at the outset of the war, in April 1861, was very difficult to enforce. There were countless inlets through which blockade runners and Confederate privateers could evade detection and capture by the U.S. Navy.

Ultimate, Though Partial, Success

However, over time, the blockade of the Confederacy was successful. The South, during the war, was consistently starved for supplies. And that circumstance dictated many decisions which would be made on the battlefield. For instance, one reason for Robert E. Lee's two invasions of the North, which ended at Antietam in September 1862 and Gettysburg in July 1863, was to gather food and supplies.

In actual practice, Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan did not bring an early end to the war as he had hoped. But it did seriously weaken the ability of the states in rebellion to fight. And in combination with Lincoln's plan to pursue a land war, it led to the defeat of the slave states rebellion.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Anaconda Plan of 1861: Early Civil War Strategy." ThoughtCo, Mar. 23, 2018, thoughtco.com/anaconda-plan-definition-1773298. McNamara, Robert. (2018, March 23). The Anaconda Plan of 1861: Early Civil War Strategy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/anaconda-plan-definition-1773298 McNamara, Robert. "The Anaconda Plan of 1861: Early Civil War Strategy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/anaconda-plan-definition-1773298 (accessed April 25, 2018).