Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Anaconda Plan

Two of the decisions that Lincoln made during the beginning of the Civil War are what many of his detractors past and present site as their case against him. One was the naval blockade against the Southern ports, the other was his suspension of Habeas Corpus. Tonight we will cover the blockade.

The idea of the naval blockade was created by seventy-five year old head of the army, General Winfield Scott. Scott, nick-named "Old Fuss and Feathers" because of his reputation as a stickler for strict conformity to regulations. Scott had been in every American military action since the War of 1812, in which he had been captured once, but earned a hero's reputation second only to Andrew Jackson's. He was a hero in the Indian Wars, and the Mexican War, he became the first lieutenant general in the American army since George Washington. A Virginian, but a devout Unionist, Scott came up with a strategic plan in response to the "insurrection."

In May he wrote to General George McClellan;

"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 seabound, so as to envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than by any other means."

Scott, pointed out that his strategy had two main elements, a blockade of the South Atlantic and Gulf ports, as well as an expedition of eighty-thousand men supported by navy gunboats down the Mississippi to New Orleans. The Confederacy would be split in two, and the embargo would cripple the South's economy.

Scott's plan was leaked to the press, and he and it were mocked as being overly cautious. It was soon carrying the label the Anaconda Plan, after that massive constricting snake. This was a time when war was being romanticized with the recent images of the Crimean War, and the famed Charge of the Light Brigade, made popular with Tennyson's 1854 poem. Lincoln was concerned that it might be too mild as well, however, he clearly saw the wisdom of this strategy and ordered the blockade. Despite the criticism against the Anaconda Plan, the blockade of Southern ports and control of the Mississippi provided the ultimate basis for the economic and military defeat of the Confederacy.

Lincoln announced the blockade on April 19th, 1861, however it was more words than action. There was really very little the Union could do either to go to war, or to prevent southern trade. The Confederacy was larger than all of western Europe, with thirty-five hundred miles of coastline and one hundred and eighty possible ports of entry to patrol, he blockade would be he largest such effort ever attempted.

The Union was woefully unprepared, even though it comprised twenty-three states and possessed most of the nation's industry and agriculture along with most of the banks and financial wealth, canals, roads, and rapidly growing railroad and telegraph network, the Union didn't have much of an army. Before the war, the U.S.Army was small, only about 16,000 officers and men. At the outbreak of the war, there were 1,108 officers, nearly 400 of them, including many with significant wartime experience in Mexico remained loyal to their home states and joined the Confederacy. The same was true about the navy, out of 1,554 officers, 373 were either dismissed or left to join the Confederacy.

While the challenge on land was daunting for both armies, Lincoln's call for a naval blockade seemed ridiculous. The U.S. Navy only had forty-two warships in operation, most of them patrolling distant oceans. Almost all of them were sailing vessels, which a new generation of steam powered ships had made obsolete. The Union actually only had three warships suitable for blockade duty.

As bad as the military situation was that Lincoln and his administration, it was far worse for Jefferson Davis. Although the Confederate Congress authorized an army of a hundred thousand men, they could offer little to pay, clothe, feed, or arm them.
The Confederate states had a small fraction of the Union's manufacturing capabilities as well as available cash. Dependent on its cotton trade for hard currency, the Confederacy was extremely vulnerable to a blockade. Davis responded to Lincoln's call to blockade by asking southern shipowners to help "resist aggression" by operating as privateers against the North's seagoing commerce. It was officially sanctioned piracy. Jefferson Davis made a economically fatal mistake early in the war. He decided that England so needed the Confederacy's cotton he decided to hold back selling it to them until the agreed to support them in the war. What he accomplished was shutting off the Confederacy's one hard money source while Lincoln's blockade was still to ineffective to slow down traffic.

Lincoln had a secret weapon in Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who soon earned the nickname "Old Father Neptune." By calling back the Navy ships, buying vessels from the large merchant fleet, and beginning a massive shipbuilding program. Welles put together a fleet of 136 new ships and had 52 more under construction by the end of the year.

Privateers and blockade running, think Rhet Butler in Gone With The Wind, enabled the Confederacy to survive as long as it did. It brought in sixty percent of the weapons used by its armies, along with shoes, food, blankets, and medicine. As the war lengthened the Union navy's increasing ability to reduce shipments into southern ports took a terrible toll on the Confederate economy. Inflation skyrocketed and crippled the Confederacy. Salt, before refrigeration was the only way to preserve meat, went from 2.00 a bag before the war to as high as 60.00 a bag in 1862. Despite the Confederacy's bragging about their brilliant generals, and glorious causes, you can't feed and army, or the civilians left behind on idealism, or military strategies. The blockade created harsh realities that hurt the Confederacy as much as any Union General could have.

Those who condemn Lincoln for this blockade could only do so from an emotional perspective, or from stories handed down from family members who suffered the shortages it brought on the Confederacy. However, take the emotion out. America was at war, it and the Constitution were under attack by those who sought to tear it apart by stripping states from the Union and forming a rival nation on American land. At war, it is the Commander-in-Chief's responsibility to protect the Union. Starving out the opposition economically is one of the most effective ways to win that war. It is somewhat disingenuous to blame him for doing his job against enemy combatants.

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