The more deeply I read into Confederate history, the more convinced I am that it was Winfield Scott, not U.S. Grant, who actually “won” the War. Scott had a storied life. Born in Virginia in 1786; graduate of William & Mary, and then studied law; appointed to the U.S. Army in 1812; commander-in-chief in 1841; the acknowledged genius of the Mexican-American War; Whig nominee for president in 1852… (the list could go on). In the early days of the war, it was Scott who developed the Anaconda Plan.
|Winfield Scot Robert E. Lee|
If you have spent any time delving into the 1860s, you’ve probably seen reference to the Anaconda Plan. We usually see it mentioned, nod our heads, and move on. However, after working on “Feeding the Army of Northern Virginia” for the past couple of years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Scott’s plan really should get more attention. Regarding the Anaconda Plan, Bruce Catton writes that Scott knew it would take time to build armies. “[T]herefore, by blockading the sea coast, seal off the inland borders as well, then drive down the Mississippi, constricting the vitality out of the Confederacy—and, at last, send in armies of invasion to break the Southern nation into bits,” the Confederacy could be beaten. (29-30) Of course, a lot of people didn’t listen to Scott. They wanted quick action – on to Richmond was the cry. We know that didn’t work out very well. And after four years of Federal armies losing hundreds of thousands of men, the blockade finally strangled the Confederacy. When Fort Fisher fell, closing the Cape Fear River and the port at Wilmington, the Confederate armies quickly succumbed.
Now that’s not to say that Sherman’s operations in Georgia and the actions of Hunter and Sheridan in the Valley did not help contribute to the Confederate demise. They did, especially in regard to foodstuffs. But even before Sheridan moved down through the Shenandoah Valley, Lee’s army was dependent on food coming through the blockade, mostly through the port of Wilmington. That, and the illicit trade through Federal lines, is what really kept the Army of Northern Virginia going the last year of the war (That’s a whole ‘nother blog post). We could just as easily push this conversation back further. They were hungry after the first battle of Mannassas, and foodstuffs are what pushed Lee into Maryland in September 1862 and Pennsylvania in July 1863.
There will be some who will say that old Hardy is just succumbing to the Lost Cause mythology: that the South was defeated not through military might, but because the men were cold and hungry. I have come to believe that the latter is more true than some will want to believe. As I have worked on “Feeding the Army of Northern Virginia,” I have largely stayed away from post war-war reminiscences. Instead, I have focused on diaries and letters, creating a real-time look at problems of foodstuffs, at least in the army in Virginia. Based upon the trends, I can see when the soldiers were hungry, when they were well fed (which seldom happened), and how it affected their moral. And that is really a key point. A huge percentage of soldiers, at least in the ANV, once they get to a breaking point regarding food, leave. Many head home. Some wander around trying to find or steal food. Others head to the Federal lines, where food has been promised to those who desert. In the end, Lee’s army, which had plenty of munitions of war, simply ran out of men.
But don’t take my word for it. Military historian John Keegan writes in The American Civil War that Scott’s plan was the “North’s fundamental strategy.” (321) Stephen Wise concludes the same in Lifeline of the Confederacy: “Defeat did not come from the lack of material: instead the Confederacy simply no long had the manpower to resist, and the nation collapsed.” (226)
In the end, Scott’s military legacy is overshadowed by Grant and Sherman. Scott was an old man at the start of the war, retiring early on, and passing away in 1866. Had the Federal navy been able to blockade the Southern ports more quickly, then maybe the Confederacy might not have existed as long as it did. It’s just something to consider, another thought to ponder in this complex story .