Founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
At the end of an important military career, General Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican-American War, devised a strategy to defeat the recently seceding Southern states that became known as the Anaconda Plan because of the plan’s attempt to surround and strangle the nascent Confederacy. Conceived during the spring and summer of 1861, Scott’s plan called for a naval blockade to limit access to all Southern ports and a military maneuver that would allow the Union to control the Mississippi River from Illinois to New Orleans, thus cutting the Confederacy in half. Scott believed that his plan would force the Confederacy to see how vulnerable it was, or at the very least, encourage those who had Unionist sentiments to confront and overthrow the plantation oligarchy.
The Anaconda plan was never formally implemented, and its reliance on rather passive means such as a blockade was immediately criticized by many Northerners who wanted a quick and decisive military campaign.The plan would not have worked during the initial stages of the war because the Union was unprepared to implement an effective blockade. And the ability to marshal an army that could capture and control the length of the Mississippi River was well beyond the military capabilities of the newly formed and poorly led Union Army. Scott’s plan was not an effective strategy so early in the war. Scott finally retired during the first year of the war.
Ironically, elements of the Anaconda plan proved quite effective during the latter stages of the war. As the Union Navy evolved, it was able to mount an effective blockade that limited the South’s ability to garner materials from potential European allies. Due to the military leadership of Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, the North eventually controlled the Mississippi and divided the Confederacy. Scott’s plans were valid but just not possible to implement during the initial war years. As Scott and the nation would learn, it would take years of loss and destruction before the war would end.