The Anaconda Plan

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Podcast Transcript

When the United States entered the Civil War, the Union needed a plan for its conduct of the conflict. 

General Windfield Scott, the Union’s senior military commander, devised a strategy that would play to the Union’s strengths and exploit the Confederacy’s weaknesses. He hoped it would bring about a swift end to the war and minimize the loss of human life. 

The plan didn’t bring about a swift end to the war, but it did play an instrumental role in the conflict. 

Learn more about the Anaconda Plan and the Union’s grand strategy for defeating the Confederacy on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Despite the multi-year run-up to the American Civil War, even when it became obvious that a war was a real possibility, there was no plan for conducting the war that had been written up. 

When southern states began succeeding from the Union, developing a plan for the war fell upon the head of the American army, General Winfield Scott. 

Before I get into the development of the plan, I should first explain who Winfield Scott was, because he is really one of the most under appreciated people in American history. 

Winfeild Scott was the longest serving general in American history and one of the longest serving soldiers. He joined the military in 1808, served in the War of 1812, was promoted to general in 1821, and then elevated to the Commanding General of the American Armed Forces in 1841.

By the time the Civil War started, he was at the end of a very long military career. To if you were to map his career on to the 20th century, he would have served from well before the First World War all the way through to the first years of the Vietnam War. 

The plan that Winfield Scott came up with in early 1861 wasn’t a military plan per se. It didn’t have anything do with units manuvering on battlefields or even raising troops, although those things were come later. 

Scott’s plan was, first and foremost, an economic plan. It was designed to play to the strengths of the Union and to exploit the weaknesses of the Confederacy. 

Scott also wanted a plan that would minimize deaths on both sides, as there would be Americans on both sides of the fight. 

His plan was to put an economic blockade on the South, preventing them from exporting cotton to England, which was far and away the biggest part of their economy. 

Not only would a blockade hurt the southern economy, but it would also prevent arms from being imported to the south from Europe. 

The Union had a much larger industrial base than the South and was capable of creating a large number of arms. By crippling the Southern economy, eventually, the North would win by sheer economic force. 

The Union also had a much larger navy than the Confederacy, and they had a greater ship building capacity than the south, so as the war dragged on, the Union advantage in ships would only get larger. 

It was called the Anaconda Plan because it was envisioned as a large snake that surrounded the Confederacy. It would go down the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Florida, then cover the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas, but mainly to New Orleans. Then, it would involve gaining full control over the Mississippi River. 

When war finally broke out, Preisdent Lincoln wasn’t initially a supporter of the plan. He wanted a quick end to war, not to see it drag out until the south had to economically submit. That could take years. 

On April 19, 1961, Lincoln did issue the Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports, but it didn’t result in any immediate action. He likewise created a Blockade Strategy Board, which would prioritize how they were going to enforce a blockade over 3,500 miles or 5,633 kilometers of coastline, and a dozen major ports. 

While planning for the blockade went ahead slowly, the more direct approach was being taken on the battlefield. Lincoln want to march into Virginia and capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, ending the war in one fell swoop.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. The first major battle of the war, the First Battle of Bull Run was a major defeat for the Union. 

After Bull Run, Lincoln realized his quick victory wasn’t going to happen, so more resources were put into Anaconda. 

At the start of the war the Union only had 90 ships, 42 of which were steam powered. That was much better than the Confederacy, but certainly nowhere near number of ships of a European power like Britian, France, or Spain. 

One of the first priorities was a campaign of ship building and retrofitting merchant ships to war ships. To give you an idea how aggressive the Union shipbuilding program was, they went from 90 naval ships at the start of the war to 641 by the end of the war. 

As these ships came into service, it was the job of the Blockade Strategy Board, under the leadership of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox, to prioritize which ports would be focused on first. 

There were two blockade zones that were established. The first ran the length of the Atlantic seaboard down to the Florida Keys. It should be noted that the Florida Keys and Fort Jefferson, the largest brick masonry structure ever built in the Americas, were in the control of the Union for the entirety of the war. 

The second zone went from the keys to down the Gulf Coast to the Mexican Border. 

The Atlantic Coast was a much higher priority than the Gulf Coast because that was where most of the major Confederate ports were, with the most direct routes to England. 

The Union began a series of conquests of important ports along the coast. The battles to take these port cities did not get as much attention as the ground battles, but they were very important in the strategic outcome of the war. 

Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina: August 29, 1861 

Port Royal, South Carolina: November 7, 1861 

New Bern, North Carolina: March 14, 1862 

Fort Pulaski, Georgia: April 11, 1862 

New Orleans, Louisiana: May 1, 1862 

Norfolk, Virginia: May 9, 1862 

Losing all these major ports was devastating to the south, but it wasn’t totally crippling. For starters, several major ports, such as Charleson, South Carolina, had not been captured. 

The blockade wasn’t perfect and there were many ships that got through. An entire industry in blockade running arose. Most of the blockade runners were fast, British built ships, that were designed for speed, not carrying large amounts of cargo. 

They would usually go from Southern ports to neutral ports in the Caribbean such as Nassau in the Bahamas and Havana in Cuba. From these staging points, goods could then be transferred to Europe or directly to Confederate ports.

Early in the war, the blockade runners were very successful, but over time, their success diminished as the number of Union ships increased and the number of captured southern ports grew. 

Once the Union began seeing success along the Atlantic, they moved into the next phase of the operation which was the Mississippi.

The Mississippi and the entire western theater was ignored when the war started, but it eventually was given the attention that was required. 

The capture of New Orleans in the spring of 1862 effectively prevented anything coming down the river from being exported. However, the United States wanted to completely control the river. 

Twelve days after capturing New Orleans, the Union went upriver and captured Baton Rouge. 

They also controlled much of the river to the north. The last thing that prevented the Union from totally controlling the Mississippi River was the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Vicksburg was located on high bluffs overlooking a sharp bend in the Mississippi River, making it a natural fortress. It was heavily fortified and considered virtually impregnable. Whoever controlled it, controlled the river traffic and the surrounding region.

The Battle of Vicksburg will be the subject of its own episode in the future, but suffice it to say it was the largest siege of the war and, in many respects, totally changed the idea of siege warfare. It also made the reputation of the Union general in command, Ulysses S. Grant.

Having taken Vicksburg, the Union not only controlled the entire Mississippi but also managed to split the Confederacy in two. Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas were now separated from the rest of the Southern states. 

This was devastating to the Confederacy because the states east of the Mississippi were primarily focused on cash crops for export. The states west of the Mississippi primarily grew food and were the breadbasket of the Confederacy. 

Not only couldn’t goods easily flow between the Confederate states, but neither could soldiers that could reinforce the army under Robert E. Lee in the east. Likewise, the Union was able to use the entire length of of the river to transport and resupply troops.

Control of the Mississippi wasn’t the end. The union contunited to capture southern ports, this time focusing on the neglected Gulf Coast.

The Union briefly captured Galveston, Texas, in October 1862. 

They took Mobile Bay, Alabama, was taken on August 23, 1864. 

Wilmington, North Carolina was captured on January 15, 1865.

By 1865, the Confederacy was nearing total collapse and exhaustion. The losses they suffered on the battlefield were aided by the collapse of the Confederate economy, which was, in no small part, due to the Anaconda Plan. 

The inability to easily sell cotton to English mills resulted in a lack of revenue. To pay for the war, the Confederacy had to print money which resulted in severe hyperinflation. By the war’s end, Confederate currency had depreciated to the point of being nearly worthless.

The encirclement of the South, as well as the disruption of the flow of goods across the Mississippi River resulted in food shortages all across the Confederacy. 

On two occasions, General Robert E. Lee entered Unition territory, resulting in two of the largest battles of the entire war, the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. One of the rationales for these forays into Union territory was to get much-needed food and supplies. 

The blockade also compounded the South’s lack of industrial capacity. It made it difficult for the South to get the arms and weapons necessary to fight the war because European markets were closed off to them. 

In the end, the Anaconda Plan was what you could call a successful failure. 

The plan was never implemented as it was originally envisioned by Winfield Scott in 1861, who retired just months after designing the plan.

It was slow to be implemented, and it took years for the requisite number of ships to be built and to take full control of the Mississippi River. 

Despite all the effort put into the blockade, the Union was never able to completely stop blockade runners and stop all goods from entering or leaving the south. 

However, in the end, it was good enough. It didn’t have to be perfect. It just needed to make life and the economy of the Confederacy difficult, which is exactly what it did.