The “Anaconda Plan”

George McClellan was an up-and-coming 34-year-old U.S. Army veteran who was held in high esteem by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. McClellan had served with gallantry in the Mexican War and observed the European armies in the Crimean War, leading to his development of what became known as the “McClellan saddle.” He had been the president of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad when the war began, and in late April he was appointed major general of Ohio volunteers.

McClellan had sent Scott a “plan of operations” that McClellan believed would “bring the war to a speedy close.” He proposed gathering 80,000 Federal troops in northwestern Virginia to move east while the Federals at Washington advanced into northern Virginia. The two armies would then join forces and move on Richmond. McClellan added: “The movement on Richmond should be conducted with the utmost promptness.”

McClellan offered a second plan that involved moving the 80,000 northwestern troops into Kentucky and Tennessee to capture Nashville. From there, they would continue south and capture the Confederate capital at Montgomery, Alabama. Meanwhile, the Federals in Washington would capture Richmond before continuing down the Atlantic coast, conquering Georgia and the Carolinas before joining McClellan’s army in Alabama. The final campaign would involve the combined armies capturing Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans on the Gulf coast.

Scott read and annotated McClellan’s paper before sharing it with President Abraham Lincoln. The general-in-chief thought some aspects of the strategy impractical, such as moving too quickly with 90-day volunteers rather than relying on a more long-term strategy using the three-year enlistments. McClellan’s plan involved “long, tedious and break down marches.” Scott sent a response to McClellan, writing in part:

“We rely greatly on the sure operation of a complete blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf ports soon to commence. In connection with such a blockade, we propose a powerful movement down the Mississippi to the ocean, with a cordon of posts at proper points… the object being to clear out and keep open this great line of communication in connection with the strict blockade of the seaboard, so as to envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than by any other plan.”

The “cordon of posts” on the Mississippi would involve 60,000 troops stationed at points from Cairo, Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. The blockade would be strengthened to cut the Confederacy completely off from the rest of the world. The raw volunteers would need several months of training before deployment, gunboats would need to be built for river warfare, and arms and equipment would need to be assembled. Consequently, Scott estimated that the great campaign could not begin until at least mid-November.

But Scott also warned: “A word now as to the greatest obstacle in the way of this plan—the great danger now pressing upon us—the impatience of our patriotic and loyal Union friends. They will urge instant and vigorous action, regardless, I fear, of consequences…”

Lincoln’s cabinet was divided on this course of action. It made military sense, but it would take considerable time to execute, which would be hard for impatient northerners to accept. Most northerners favored a quick victory, and when this plan was divulged by the press, it was compared to the way in which an anaconda slowly strangles its victims and therefore derisively nicknamed the “Anaconda Plan.” However, as the war went on, many points of Scott’s plan would eventually be implemented.


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  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
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  • Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.

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