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What is the Anaconda Plan?

By James Doehring
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Anaconda Plan was a proposed strategy for defeating the Confederacy during the American Civil War. In May of 1861, Winfield Scott, a Union Army general, suggested blockading Confederate ports and advancing down the Mississippi River to split the Confederacy in two. The plan was generally criticized as being too passive and was not implemented. Elements of the plan, however, reemerged later in the war as part of Union strategy.

General Winfield Scott had participated in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. Scott briefed President Abraham Lincoln in the early days of the Civil War, serving as General-in-Chief. He did not believe the Union could secure a quick victory; his plan involved expanding the Navy considerably over many months. Scott’s more slow-paced plan was derided by opponents who favored an immediate ground assault. The press subsequently named the scheme the "Anaconda Plan."

The plan called for a force of roughly 80,000 men to push down the entire Mississippi River, from Illinois to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. Amphibious forces supported by gunboats would take key Confederate positions along the river. A more traditional army would then follow up and occupy captured territory. Confederate ports along the Atlantic coast would be rigorously blockaded. Scott believed that splitting the Confederacy in two and isolating it from Atlantic trade would push the Confederacy toward capitulation without unnecessary bloodshed.

Though the Anaconda Plan was not endorsed, some features of it played out in the actual course of the war. President Lincoln officially ordered a blockade of Confederate coasts only weeks after the outbreak of the war. The Union Navy at the time lacked enough ships to make this blockade effective, but it steadily expanded its fleet. The Union ended up advancing on the Mississippi River from both ends, finally clearing it from Confederate control in mid-1863. In 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant implemented an aggressive blockade of Atlantic ports in the Confederacy.

Nearly 150 years since the conclusion of the Civil War, there has been no consensus among historians on the merit of the Anaconda Plan. The war did not turn out to be the bloodless affair that Scott originally proposed, though it is impossible to know what would have happened had his plan been implemented from the start. A majority of historians hold that Union operations in the Western Theater are at least as important to the outcome of the war as those in the East. Campaigns in the West before the successful taking of Vicksburg, Mississippi would suggest that a Union presence in the West—a key feature of the Anaconda Plan—was important for Union victory. The effectiveness of the coastal blockade, however, remains controversial.

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