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Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan”

During the past few weeks, we have discussed several ways in which both Northerners and Southerners have memorialized their soldiers.  We have also discussed several groups that were excluded, or maybe their vital roles in the Civil War were not fully appreciated.  We discussed both women and African Americans, but one group that was not mentioned at all was the role of the Navy (from both the Union and Confederacy) in the war.

Many people focus on the land battles and ignore the importance of the navies.  This aspect of the war is perhaps my favorite, and it is a rich subject that has not been fully studied.  Naval historian Donald Canney asserts that “[t]he naval war was one of sudden, spectacular lightning battles as well as continual and fatal vigilance on the coasts, rivers, and seas.”[1]  Enacting a blockade was paramount for the Union Navy as it would cut off any possible help that the Confederacy could receive from sources overseas and prevent the sale of cotton.[2]  While the Union Navy was small at the start of hostilities, the Confederacy’s was non-existent.  Both sides scrambled to build up their navies and mimic the ironclad cruisers prevalent in Europe.[3]  All other ships were made of wood.  The first meeting of this new breed of warships took place between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia.  This three-hour battle “was the world’s first battle between ironclad vessels.”[4]

While the Confederacy fought to defend their ports, the Union began a two-pronged attack in order to gain control of the Mississippi River.  The brainchild of Winfield Scott, the “Anaconda Plan” was meant to “surround the foe and suffocate it into surrendering.”[5]  With the Confederacy defending their east coast ports, Union Admiral David Farragut entered the Gulf of Mexico with the intention of taking New Orleans.  Simultaneously, Union gunboats headed south down the Mississippi River.  Once New Orleans surrendered, Farragut and his Union forces moved north up the river and met up with the southbound gunboats to aid Ulysses Grant in sacking Vicksburg.[6]  The actions of these fleets effectively “sever[ed] everything west of the River from the rest of the Confederacy.”[7]  With the “Anaconda Plan” in full force, the Union Navy turned its attentions on taking the key Confederate ports.  In January 1865, Fort Fisher at Wilmington, North Carolina surrendered.[8]  Canney asserts that this fall “deprived Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia of a major supply source and contributed directly to the end of the war.”[9]

The ingenuity of both naval powers must not be taken lightly, or ignored.  Significant advancement of naval technology occurred during the Civil War, and it is apparent that these developments contributed to the end of the war.  I believe it is a shame that there is such little credit of the vital role of the navies.


[1] Donald Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War,” http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/warfare-and-logistics/warfare/navy.html (accessed June 25, 2012).

[2] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[3] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[4] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[5] Louis P. Masur, The Civil War: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 25-26.

[6] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[7] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[8] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[9] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”