American Civil War: 1861–1865

Strategies of the North and South during the American Civil War

Anaconda Plan

The Anaconda Plan was the Union's plan to "strangle" the South by enacting a naval blockade, gaining control of the Mississippi River, and gradually increasing pressure on the South by land and sea.
The Anaconda Plan was the long-term strategy of Union General Winfield Scott to cripple the South. Dubbed "Scott's Great Snake" by a Cincinnati newspaper in 1861, the proposed Anaconda Plan relied on military and naval forces to tighten the Union's grip on the Confederacy from all sides, much as the actual snake will grasp its prey.
In 1861 a Cincinnati newspaper published an image of "Scott's Great Snake" to depict General Winfield Scott's strategy to win the Civil War, known as the Anaconda Plan.
Credit: Elliott, J. B./Library of Congress Geography and Map Division
Scott's plan took a three-pronged approach. First, the Union initiated a blockade, the isolation of an enemy area to prevent passage of people or supplies. The blockade of all major Southern ports had a twofold effect. It prevented the Confederacy from shipping cotton to Europe. It also prevented the Confederacy from obtaining guns and other goods necessary to sustain the war effort. Unlike the North, the South did not have the factories necessary to manufacture its own weapons.

The blockade began on April 19, 1861, and by July, most major Southern ports were subject to the blockade. Though the first year was not very successful—up to 95 percent of Confederate ships were able to slip past the blockade—the following year saw a dramatic decrease, with only about 15 percent of Confederate ships making it past the Union navy.

The second approach in Scott's Anaconda Plan was to gain control of the Mississippi from north to south. Meanwhile, the third part of the plan involved dividing the Confederacy into three distinct theaters of fighting. Then targeted military and naval efforts could gradually gain control of the South, moving from west to east.

The Confederacy next attempted to win through to the Pacific coast, where there was no Union blockade to prevent trade with other countries. The Confederates believed they had wide support in New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, which would yield numerous new recruits for their army. They also hoped to buoy their finances through gaining control of the Colorado mines. After raising three regiments in Texas, in late 1861 the Confederate army followed the Rio Grande into New Mexico. By March 1862 they had occupied Albuquerque. Greatly outnumbered, Union troops fell back and waited to be joined by the 1st Colorado, a volunteer regiment making its way south.

On March 26 and 28, 1862, the two sides clashed in the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which marked the last Confederate foray into the West. At first it looked as if the Confederates had won the day, but the tide turned when Colorado troops circled around behind the Confederate soldiers and cut off their access to supplies. Then the Colorado troops descended on the Texan troops from the rear, forcing the Texans to retreat. After withdrawing, the Texan commanders wrote the governor of Texas asking for reinforcements, but none came. Eventually, the Confederates were forced to return to Texas. Because it decisively ended the Confederacy's push for the Pacific, this battle is often called the Gettysburg of the West.

The Anaconda Plan was ultimately a success. However, nearly four years of fighting had passed before this Union strategy for defeating the South achieved its goal.

Strategy of Attrition

The Confederates' plan was to avoid full-scale battles with the Union army and participate only in small, limited engagements, with the goal of prolonging the war and wearing down the enemy.

While the Union strategy was largely an offensive one, many in the Confederacy, including its president, Jefferson Davis, favored a less direct, more long-term strategy. Confederate leaders were well aware that the South lacked the resources of the North. For example, the North had nine times the South's industrial capacity and produced 97 percent of firearms in America. Therefore, the Confederacy favored a strategy of attrition, which was a strategy of endurance to wear down the Union and to win the war over time by not losing it. They would drag out the war, making it as difficult and expensive as possible for the Union to fight in terms of resources and manpower. This would be done by avoiding large battles and engaging only in smaller conflicts and skirmishes. Troops would retreat as necessary to regroup and to put distance between themselves and the enemy, placing the onus on the Union to pursue the Confederates onto their home ground.

The strategy of attrition achieved limited success for several reasons. First, Confederate forces were dispersed across the South. While this action provided defense for many areas in the South, it also diluted the Confederate army and rendered it less effective. Second, most Southerners were reluctant to wait for the war to come to them and generally favored an offensive strategy over a defensive one.

This eagerness to fight the Union head-on placed political pressure on Confederate leaders to adopt an "offensive-defensive" strategy. Ultimately, attrition was inconsistently implemented, and the South fought a number of major battles that had a significant impact on their ability to win the war.