Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University
Winfield Scott was one of the nation’s military legends. When he decided not to join secession, even though he was a Virginian, supporters of the Union breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Yet this hero of the War of 1812, the 1830s nullification crisis, and the Mexican War did not live up to his reputation when the Civil War began There is little evidence that he had begun any serious strategic planning for the conflict. Like so many others, he did not want to believe it would happen. After Fort Sumter surrendered on April 13, 1861, he only acted when a brash young army officer named George B. McClellan wrote him. On April 27, McClellan suggested a trans-montagne (over the Appalachian Mountains)campaign from Ohio against Richmond. Scott responded on May 3, that such a campaign would be difficult to achieve and instead suggested another approach, the so-called “Anaconda Plan”: a blockade of ocean ports and capture of the Mississippi River, thus encircling the Confederacy like a giant snake and squeezing it to death.
Some historians argue that this was the way the Civil War was fought. However, they neglect an important consideration. Scott called for the Federals to encircle the Confederacy and then wait for it to die. The Anaconda Plan did not envision an attack into the South, Scott believing that waiting out the Confederates would bring victory yet prevent post-war hard feelings.
There was a blockade. Union forces did capture control of the Mississippi River,and the Confederacy was encircled. However, the Federals went on the offensive, eventually on all fronts at the same time. It was this sustained forward movement, not external pressure, which defeated the South. Time was on the side of the Confederates, and Scott’s Anaconda Plan played into this advantage. Had the Anaconda Plan been followed, Union victory would almost certainly not have occurred.