Anaconda Plan in the Civil War: Definition, Summary & Map

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  • 0:00 Definition of Anaconda Plan
  • 1:00 A Diplomatic Strategy
  • 1:40 The Drumbeat of War
  • 2:45 The Anaconda Plan Reprise
  • 3:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

Discover a cogent discussion of the Anaconda Plan, the first war strategy recommended to President Abraham Lincoln and the Union for ending the Civil War. Learn about its origin, the tactics involved, and how the plan was utilized.


The term 'anaconda' reflected the general strategy recommended to President Abraham Lincoln on how to end the Civil War as painlessly as possible. Think about how an anaconda captures and contains its prey. The reptile slowly wraps its body around the prey while constricting to a point that eventually causes it to surrender. At the beginning of the war, the Union believed in a similar form of warfare. This strategy came to be known as the Anaconda Plan.

The Anaconda Plan, or the boa-constrictor strategy, was the brainchild of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Developed at the onset of the war (April 1861), the strategy recommended that Union troops surround the states in rebellion and effectively suppress the insurrection. Troops were to be stationed at Southern ports and harbors as well as positioned along the Mississippi River from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. Gunboats were also to be used to blockade southern sea routes. The ultimate goal was to 'diplomatically' force rebellious Southerners to withdraw from the war and return to normalcy.

A Diplomatic Strategy

It is important for you to know that General-in-Chief Winfield Scott had roots in Virginia and did not necessarily want to unleash a strategy that required the complete destruction and unconditional surrender of the South. However, at the time, his notion was generally supported by the Union. Northern leaders did not expect the war to stretch out five years and, therefore, called for a policy of limited warfare. The goal was not to destroy the South but simply force a return to loyalty. Scott's Anaconda Plan was aimed to suffocate the rebellion without causing a tremendous amount of bloodshed and loss. The strategy would take time but to many, it was better than engaging in total war.

The Drumbeat of War

While Northern leaders believed they had an acceptable plan of action, public opinion strongly differed. Unionists wanted to engage in total warfare with those states in rebellion. Many Northerners believed that the Rebel army needed to be annihilated rather than suffocated via armed diplomacy. The clamor for battle eventually proved to be a necessity in order to defeat the rebellion.

To address the growing call, President Lincoln attempted a swift and limited victory at Manassas instead of immediately adopting the Anaconda Plan. Unfortunately, the Union was defeated and retreated quickly to Washington.

Lincoln realized that the states in rebellion were not going to be defeated diplomatically, as there was too much anti-Union sentiment. While aspects of Scott's Anaconda Plan were eventually adopted, such as the blockading ports (1861) and a campaign along the Mississippi River (1862), the Union moved toward a more aggressive strategy against the rebellion.

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