Fakelore from the National Archives

You were probably wondering how Joe Hooker became the all-knowing, all-seeing master of the battlefield that he was.

Or perhaps not.
Sorry to report that the National Archives has caught the spirit of public history/edutainment. This piece of nonsense is way too lighthearted for an archives blog and although it links to a source, the source is as preposterous as the story. The final touch, a nice piece of public history indeed, is the spurious picture caption: "It's possible Dabney contributed details to this map, completed in the days before the Battle of Chancellorsville."

It's possible Paul Bunyan contributed as well.

If the record itself does not offer enough drama and excitement, the public historian is free to just make stuff up, using artifacts as props to help legitimize fictional points. If just one child becomes interested in history as a result of this professional misbehavior, it will all have been worth it!

Public history is posing a real problem to our culture.


McDowell's headgear, revived

The improvised headgear of the Egyptian revolution (above) reminded me of our old series on McDowell's eskimo canoe. Seeing this Egyptian headgear is inspiring. McDowell's toppers, on the other hand, enraged people.

First glimplses here (please reread for the Franklin-McDowell content which we'll explore shortly).

Interesting speculation from Tim Reese here.

Case closed on McD's hat?

Topping off the series.

We used to have fun on this blog. What the hell ever happened to us?


The strategy of Jefferson Davis (cont.)

Having gone through the top level of Jefferson Davis's strategy, we need to look at the second level.

Joe Johnston can help us with that.

The advanced reader is well aware of Davis's toleration of Johnston's withdrawals. Johnston is not the only general who gives ground in this war but will suffice to illuminate a proposition. With Davis: military necessity trumps potential political gain. Davis generally will not override conditions on the ground in order to score political benefits, despite his overwhelmingly political orientation. But the exceptions test the rule.

We might argue a another principle for Davis: preservation of the force trumps political gain.

So, to Johnston - I have in mind the early war. His army has the incendiary political name of "Army of the Potomac." But Davis allows him to pull back from that same Potomac - losing political points - based on military considerations. Later, on the same basis, Johnston's evacuation of Centreville is tolerated (though the manner of it, with loss of stores, is not). In each case, Johnston's rationale is that McClellan can turn his position.

Recall also that Johnston abandoned Harpers Ferry to Patterson based on McClellan reinforcing Lew Wallace at Cumberland and then potentially turning his position.

If Davis had an issue with these military rationales for giving up forward (political) positions, he did not manifest these through public criticism or punishment of JJ.

At the Warwick line, we get closer to data that might allow us insight into Davis's political calculations. Davis believed Johnston must honor Magruder's prep work with a defense. But there were two sound military reasons to abandon the Warwick line.

(1) Johnston claimed the works were defective - the layout and engineering were wrong.

(2) Johnston and G.W. Smith argued McClellan could turn this line using the USN.

Here, Davis (supported by Lee) rejected (1) as if it were a matter of opinion while failing to recognize (2) at all. This is out of alignment with previous decisions.

Lee had weighed in for Magruder's works as good engineering. Davis - oddly - gave more weight to the Lee/Magruder view than to the views of the men charged to defend the works. He completely ignored the more critical (almost irrefutable) point made by Smith and Johnston that to defend Richmond, you had to get off the Peninsula.

To restate the Smith/Johnston argument: you could lose an army defending Richmond on the Peninsula. I cannot believe that Davis failed to grasp this point. Davis calculated that the political cost of further withdrawal was higher than the potential loss of an army. I believe that the Davis-Johnston-Smith-Lee dialog on the Peninsula certifies Davis's primacy of political considerations in strategy.

BTW, despite egregious Navy failures, McClellan made honest men out of Smith and Johnston on this question.

So, in the early war at least, Davis was unwilling to allow the enemy to approach Richmond beyond a certain point regardless of military cost. In other words, there was a tipping point in the tradeoff between political and military considerations whereby the political again became supreme.

The signals given to Johnston near Richmond were read by Union commanders who then and later overvalued Richmond's significance. Their mistake was to value it as Davis did in 1862. By April 1865, Davis understood that he did not need Richmond.

Just some food for thought...

Authority seeking

How much Civil War "consumption" is driven by authority seeking?
Audience member William Moore called Gallagher one of the best authorities on the Civil War.

“He gives a very balanced position based on his long study and research,” Moore said. “He’s nationally known as an authority on the subject and he speaks with great authority and enthusiasm.”

Civil War music - the doodah marches on

The attempt to reduce Civil War music to the abysmal level of 21st Century tastes continues. In this report from the Camptown Races, there's no trace of the music enlisted men paid to enjoy, North or South.


The strategy of Jefferson Davis

June 18, 1861, and Jefferson Davis writes his brother,
Troops are daily arriving from the South and I hope before long to be able to change from the defensive to an offensive attitude. It will be thus only that we can hope to check the progress of the war.
We'll return to that in a moment.

Our comedians, the punchline writers of Civil War history say Davis had no strategy. In a new book, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, Donald Stoker repeats one of these jokes out of the mouth of toastmaster T. Harry Williams:
...there is no evidence in all the literature that Davis ever at any one time gave extended consideration to the basic question of what the South would have to do to win the war.
This is 100 proof Williams with hyperbole in the service of polemic: "no evidence," "in all the literature," "ever," "at any one time." A man would have to be drunk to write a line like that - or perhaps be a blogger or a Usenet troll.

It is now 2011 and we need to be done with T. Harry Williams.

Unfortunately, Professor Stoker opens and closes the case for Confederate strategy with that one liner. This clarifies the subtitle, "Strategy and the U.S. Civil War" which must truly be read as "Strategy and the Union's Civil War."

A professor (even at the Navy's War College) might treat his readers as freshmen, but a book on Civil War strategy is designed for advanced readers who deserve better than wisecracks and a slamming of doors on deep subjects.

As much as he borrowed from the Centennial generation of pop historians, even James McPherson could not make a mistake on this scale. McPherson said, to paraphrase, that Davis had a strategy that was Washingtonian. By that he meant Fabian in the manner of Barclay de Tolly, trading space for time. He also called it an attrition strategy focusing on the material cost to the attacker.

As in so many things, McPherson was/is flamboyantly wrong. The credit to him is that he perceived a strategy at work. The only possible credit to Williams is that if you read his statement a certain way it can mean that whether or not he had a strategy, Davis left no record of a complete statement of it. McPherson has constructed a strategy inferentially and erred.

But this is to give more credit to Williams than the objects of his criticism ever received. Williams meant that Davis had no strategy and that is wrong.

The advanced reader does not need me to construct a summary statement of Davis's strategy. We all know that Davis was going to defend the polity as far forward as feasible (the opposite of a Fabian strategy); he was not going to trade space for anything but blood; and he regarded the defensive as a temporary expedient until resolution could be obtained by offensive acts.

In the letter to his brother, Davis laments Virginia's lack of unity compared to the cotton states and muses that with a resolute Virginia, "Perhaps we might now have been contending for the bank of the Susquehanna instead of retiring from the Potomac."

Davis defends far forward. He looks for circumstances allowing "an offensive attitude." His calculations are Clausewitzian: political, political, political.

His forward defense is to stablize polities and local resources while minimizing political damage. His opportunistic offensives are to inflict polictical damage. Read his writings - they harp on teaching the North [political] lessons.

Everywhere the North gathers a force, the South gathers a counterforce. This is no accident. This is not trial and error. This is design. The opportunity to adopt an "offensive attitude" requires a force and the force must be forward.

Until Bull Run, Davis has no yardstick by which to measure political damage to the North. After that and the Trent affair and Ball's Bluff, Davis may have misjudged the strength of political effects. His main source of information would have been the press. The Republican press reaction to this or that failure was often out of proportion to the military significance, presenting the illusion of inflated political bonuses to the peace account.

The Rebel president - or anyone, even Lincoln - could easily be misled by this feedback loop. If the nonsense of Ball's Bluff can trigger a CCW, imprisonment of Stone, a witchhunt against McClellan, a Congressional vetting of the officer corps, imagine what contending for the Susquehanna might produce!

The Maryland Campaign is the first testing of the political basis of Davis's strategy. It comes in mid-war. The invasion of Pennsylvania comes a year later. The basis of Davis's strategy is in both cases invalidated. He is able to psychologically sustain the basis of his strategy only by investing in a hypothetical outcome to the 1864 elections, misled again in the same way Lincoln is misled by Northern newspapers.

The object was to hurt the enemy politically as opportunity arose. The object was to prevent political hurt on the CSA while awaiting those opportunities. This is not a sophisticated strategy but it is strategy.

This would have made the basis of an interesting study. We got a cheap laugh instead.

Take my Williams. Please, take my Williams.


Army ethos

A staple in Civil War reading is the author's attempt to rouse reader indignation against the professional ethic of this or that general.

The historical fact not generally known is that the U.S. Army did not and does not have a stated professional ethos.

Matthew Moten, who wrote a necessary book on the Delafield Commission here urges the Army to finally sit down and develop one.

That Lincoln crowd is a smart crowd

Come walk with intellectual giants. Help honor the memory.

The controversy du jour: Lincoln, colonizer

Better wrangling fodder than black Confederates...


Rosie catches a break

Equestrian statue planned for Rosecrans. Meanwhile, his re-enactor looks more like George Thomas.

Entropy flows downhill

As the USA lacks a national Sesquicentennial organization, Georgia lacks a state Sesquicentennial organization


No thank you, Harold Holzer

Update: Added NO to the post title. Picked up the book in B&N tonight. It's a complete mess. Content is chronological, editorials are mixed in with reports, bewildering typography, no editing whatsoever. The dross is overwhelming.

** Start original post **

Holzer's unstoppable repackaging instincts led to the issue (in October) of contemporary NYT Civil War coverage in book form under his name.

This is hugely important for the Civil War readers still unaware that every mainstream "scholarly" insight currently in play in the field of ACW history originates in the partisan Republican press of the war. Every one.

If you want a Pulitzer today, regurgitate Republican editorials from that time.

The only question is whether this is the best single source to demonstratethat point. I'll pick one up and let you know. We'll do a tour of stolen memes.


A token plan (conclusion)

In this post, you saw what historians are linking to when they cite an Anaconda plan or strategy.

In the first Anaconda artifact, Scott refers to an operation involving seaboard blockade and a Mississippi blockade made up of naval posts. He alludes cryptically to waterborne transport of armies without elaboration.

In the second artifact, Scott he says the river and seabord blockade can be supplemented with an army movement on steam transports to clear the Mississippi down to the sea. He asks for input on details for this projected operation.

In the third artifact, Scott adds a modification to his idea, that of having a clearing force divided between riverborne and roadbound columns and the columns originating on the Ohio.

These represent three different concepts. To those who believe in an Anaconda plan or strategy, I say, you have three if you have any. To use a single source to footnote your reference to an Anaconda plan or strategy is to say THIS is the Anaconda. But at different points in time, Scott entertained different operational schemes.

Scott himself refers to the third incomplete sketch using the word "plan" and the newspapers and historians have followed suit. Even the most basic operational elements have not yet been defined making this (in fact) a non-plan.

Just as careless, hurried historians could be misled by Scott's own use of "plan," so they could also be misled into thinking there is a strategy through the presence of what looks like a strategy statement in the second artifact:

... so as to envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than by any other plan.

This is an ill-defined operation proposed against a speculative end state to gain bargaining chips in a future negotiation. This is not a strategy, not even an operational objective.

Here is a strategy statement: Displace, destroy or capture the rebel government. Here is a statement of operational objectives: Capture Richmond. Another strategy statement: Prevent communication with the outside world. Statement of operational objectives: Occupy these X points on the rivers and coasts.

What Scott gives out is a non-strategy statement: Establish a blockade to [experience a possible political outcome].

Remember the context. On April 27, McClellan proposes a violent operation to overthrow the seat of Confederate government. Scott responds with a counterproposal to mount an operation to strengthen future negotiating positions. Scott forwards both items to Lincoln in a way that presumes Lincoln's favor. In a separate letter he tempts McClellan with leadership of the hypothetical river operation. He tries to entangle McClellan in the planning for such an operation. Out of these gossamer threads, history spins a complete plan and a famous strategy.

What is unsaid in Scott's statement is the presumption of future negotiations. Whence this faith? From his political mentor and patron William Seward, chief of Cabinet, a believer in negotiations. Why might Scott presume Lincoln's favor for his views? He might be getting Lincoln second hand through Seward's filter.

Scott is in fact developing a "product" for Seward, who sees himself leading peace negotiations; Scott is selling goods designed for Seward to Lincoln (and McClellan). That is the "Anaconda plan" or "Anaconda strategy" in a nutshell. Chips and tokens for sale or trade with no plan or strategy in sight.

A token plan (cont.)

This post lays out the scraps of information cited by historians in their references to an Anaconda Plan or strategy. When you see Anaconda plan or strategy footnoted, is this what you expect to see in the look-up? Or has the author fobbed off a token of his "respect" for you as a reader?

[1] This first item is occasionally cited in conjunction with either of the next two. The letter on which this endorsement appears was sent two days after McClellan assumed command in Ohio. Scott is calling Lincoln's attention to McClellan's incompetence as a planner. The last two sentences contain material construed to be Anaconda related.


MAY 2, 1861.

As at the date of this letter General McClellan knew nothing of the intended call for two years' volunteers, he must have had the idea of composing his enormous columns of three-months' men for operating against Nashville and Richmond-that is, of men whose term of service would expire by the time he had collected and organized them. That such was his idea appears from a prior letter, in which, although, the Ohio quota is but about 10,000 men the general speaks, I think of having 30,000 and wants arms, &c., for 80,000. Second. A march upon Richmond from the Ohio would probably insure the revolt of Western Virginia, which if left alone will soon be five out of seven for the Union. Third. The general eschews water transportation by the Ohio and Mississippi in favor of long, tedious and break-down (of men, horses, and wagons) marches. Fourth. His plan is to subdue the seceded States by piece-meal instead of enveloping them all (nearly) at once by a cordon of posts on the Mississippi to its mouth from its junction with the Ohio, and by blockading ships of war on the sea-board. For the cordon a number of men equal to one of the general's columns would probably suffice, and the transportation of men and all supplies by water is about a fifth of the land cost, besides the immense saving in time.
Respectfully submitted to the President.


[2] This second item is referenced by itself or in conjunction with another of these three when the Anaconda is mentioned. The relevant content is in the third paragraph only.

Washington, May 3, 1861.
Major General GEORGE B. McCLELLAN,
Commanding Ohio Volunteers, Cincinnati, Ohio:

SIR: I have read and carefully considered your plan for a campaign, and now send you confidentially my own views, supported by certain facts of which you should be advised.

First. It is the design of the Government to raise 25,000 additional regular troops, and 60,000 volunteers for three years. It will be inexpedient either to rely on the three-months' volunteers for extensive operations or to put in their hands the best class of arms we have in store. The term of service would expire by the commencement of a regular campaign and the [items?] not lost be returned mostly in a damaged condition. Hence I must stronly urge upon you to confine yourself strictly to the quota of three-months' men called for by the War Department.

Second. We rely greatly on the sure operation of a complete blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf ports soon to commence. In connection with such blockade we propose a powerful movement down the Mississippi to the ocean, with a cordon of posts at proper points and capture of Forts Jackson and Saint Philip; the object being to clear out and keep open this great line of communication in connection with the strict blockade of the sea-board, so as to envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less bloodshed thany be any other plan. I suppose there will be needed from twelve to twenty steam gun-boats, and a sufficient number of steam transports (say forty) to carry all the personnel (say 60,000 men) and material of the expedition; most of the gun-boats to be in advance to open the way, and the remainder to follow and protect the rear of the expedition, &c. This army, in which it is not improbable you may be invited to take an important part, should be composed of our best regulars for the advance and of three-years' volunteers, all well officered, and with four months and a half of instruction in camps prior to (say) November 10. In the progress down the river all the enemy's batteries on its banks we of course would turn and capture, leaving a sufficient number of posts with complete garrisons to keep the river open behind the expedition. Finally, it will be necessary that New Orleans should be strongly occupied and securely held until the present difficulties are composed.

Third. A word now as to the greatest obstacle in the way of this plan- the great danger now pressing upon us-the impatience of our patriotic and loyal Union friends. They will urge instant vigorous action, regardless, I fear, of consequences-that is, unwilling to wait for the slow instruction of (say) twelve or fifteen camps, for the rise of rivers, and the return of frosts to kill the virus of malighant fevers below Memphis. I fer this; but impress right views, on every proper occasion, upon the brave men who are hastering to the support of their Government. Lose no time, while necessary preparations for the great expedition are in progress, in organizing, drilling, and disciplining your three-months' men, many of whom, it is hoped, will be ultimately found enrolled under the call for three-years' volunteers. Should an urgent and immediate occasion arise meantime for their services, they will be the more effective. I commend these views to your consideration, and shall be happy to hear the result.

With great respect, your, truly,

[3] This last item is referenced independently or in tandem with one of the others above. Anaconda content appears in the last paragraph.

Washington, May 21, 1861.
Major General GEORGE B. McCLELLAN, U. S. Army,
Commanding, &c.:

SIR: Considering that Cumberland, in Maryland, is not withing your command, and is under the immediate consideration of Major-General Patterson and the authorities here (all of us men nearer at hand), we are surprised at your repeated admonitions to the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of War, and myself to occupy that point, and I am still more surprised at your complaint to the Secretary of War against me that you are without instructions or authority and with your hands tied up. In reply, I refer to the communications sent you at the following dates, some of which, at any rate, you have acknowledged:

First. Letter of April 30, on learning you were the major-general of Ohio Volunteers. Second. Copy of letters of commanding officer at Cairo, of May 2, instructing him not to detain provisions. Third. Letter of May 3, giving plan of a campaign. Fourth. Telegram of May 6, in relation to regular officers of your staff. Fifth. Telegram of May 8, order to stop provisions at Cairo, &c. Sixth. Telegramof May 8, in relation to camp at Cairo and intercepting regular companies from Fort Randall. Seventh. Telegram of May 10, in relation to re-enforcing Cairo. Eighth. Copy of letter to Colonel Robert Anderson, May 15, in relation to volunteers in Western Virginia and Kentucky. Ninth. Letter of May 15, sent by Lieutenant L. A. Williams. Tenth. Telegram of May 20, stating that you authority was ample within your military department. Eleventh. General Orders, Nos. 14 and 19, defining the limits of your department, adding thereto Western Pennsylvania and Virginia. Besides which, your communications on the subject of ordnance supplies have been promptly referred to the Ordnance Department and attended to.

It is not conceived what other instructions could have been needed by you. Placed in the command of a wide department, with the quotas of three-months' men under you of several States, it surely was unnecessary to say that you were expected to defend it against all enemies of the United States, and it was not intended that you should make expeditions much beyond its borders without some great object of interest to the Federal Union to be suggested by you and approved here. Indeed, the thee-months' men were called into service mainly for defensive purposes, but permission would readily have been given to you to march into a neighboring State to countenance or to protect the friends of the Union, if you had presented a reasonable case for such interference. It is otherwise in respect to the greater of the long-term volunteers of your department when received, but as yet I am not aware that a single regiment has been presented or organized in your department. Out of these troops you will at the proper time replace the defensive posts occupied by the three-months' men, and hold the remainder in convenient camps of instruction-that is, near to wood, water, and cheap supplies, and to transportation by rail, canal, or river. It is suggested that these rendezvous or camps of instruction should consist of four or eight regiments each, and on ground either porous or slightly rolling. Larger camps soon exhaust the smaller supplies and comforts for too many miles around them. As a greater part of these troops are not expected to take the field much before the return of frost, they will, under good instructors, have ample time for the acquisition of tactical instruction and habits of discipline (obedience), without which they will not be equal to the expedition for which they are intended.
After desiring you to consult freely with the Governors of the States within your department on the best sites for these camps, I will here add a modifications of the expedition toward the Gulf of Mexico, alluded to in a former letter. I propose to organize an amry of regulars and volunteers on the Ohio River of, say 80,000 men, to be divided into two unequal columns, the smaller to proceed by water on the first autumnal swell in the rivers, headed and flanked by gun-boats (propellers of great speed and strength), and the other column to proceed as nearly abreast as practicable by land- of course without the benefit of rail transportation-and receiving at certain points on the river its heavier articles of consumption from the freight boats of the first column. By this means the wagon train the of the land column may no doubt be much diminished, but would still remain, I fear, so large as to constitute a great impediment to the movement. Would 80,000 men be sufficient to conquer its way to New Orleans and clear out the Mississippi to the Gulf? What should be the relative numbers of the two columns, and at how many points besides Louisville, Paducah, Columbus, Hickman, Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans would the two columns be able to hold a close communication with each other? Of course much would depend upon the relations to the United States of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. I ask your views not only on the foregoing points, but also as to the form, draft, tonnage, and armament of the gun-boats or tugs. Cincinnati abounds in the best information on all these heads. Again assuring you that you are likely to bear an important if not be principal part in this great expedition, and of my great confidence in your intelligence, zeal, sciene, and energy, I remain, very truly, yours,


P. S. - Without waiting for the formal order of Secretary of War extending the limits of your department across the Ohio and the Mississippi, you will not hesitate to give any reasonable support (without comprosing your detachments) in your power to the friends of the Union in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri.


A token plan (cont.)

A propos of our strategy discussion, you might find Jomini's definition interesting. Mahan, who postdates Scott's education (BTW) gave his students the short and sweet version of Jomini: "Strategy decides where to act." This well suits our lazy historians and readers and one finds this often. However, the full Jomini appears below in all its elaboration. From the Art of War:
Strategy embraces the following points, viz.:—

1. The selection of the theater of war, and the discussion of the different combinations of which it admits.

2. The determination of the decisive points in these combinations, and the most favorable direction for operations.

3. The selection and establishment of the fixed base and of the zone of operations.

4. The selection of the objective point, whether offensive or defensive.

5. The strategic fronts, lines of defense, and fronts of operations.

6. The choice of lines of operations leading to the objective point or strategic front.

7. For a given operation, the best strategic line, and the different maneuvers necessary to embrace all possible cases.

8. The eventual bases of operations and the strategic reserves.

9. The marches of armies, considered as maneuvers.

10. The relation between the position of depots and the marches of the army.

11. Fortresses regarded as strategical means, as a refuge for an army, as an obstacle to its progress: the sieges to be made and to be covered.

12. Points for intrenched camps, t├ętes de pont, &c.

13. The diversions to be made, and the large detachments necessary.
This is not my litmus test for the Anaconda, it is offered here mainly to show how inadequate is the usage "Anaconda strategy" in a contemporary context.

A token plan (cont.)

The "Anaconda plan" does not refer to a document, as we have seen in the previous post. Nor does it exist embodied in orders or other artifacts that take shape during a planning process.

This "plan," whenever referred to, is just a concept, a couple of talking points. A military plan, written or unwritten, has operational and other elements that are missing here. To the newspapermen of the 19th Century, random thought experiments could platonically be composited by some invisible hand into a notional "plan" that exists hypothetically on its own plane, complete, perfect, or at least good enough for their readers then. It's not good enough for us now, and I would strongly caution writers and teachers in military schools especially to examine their consciences before referring to an "Anaconda Plan." This term has even less substance to it than the nonsense referred to as "McClellan's letters to his wife."

Again, I make the caveat that it is possible Scott had a plan per se and he presented this to newspapermen and that a story with proper plan elements exists in some archive undiscovered, just as McClellan's letters to his wife may yet someday be discovered. Meanwhile, let's follow the data we have.

This leaves us with the term "Anaconda strategy." Again, a strategy contains elements that are missing from our Anaconda record, the most important of which is aim or purpose. Scott's statements represent proposed operations to achieve unstated goals and effects. They are operational ideas lacking any kind of strategic framework. Example of an effective statement of strategy: we will end the rebellion by capturing Richmond and the CSA government there. Some will argue that this is not a strategy since it has left out the means, but I would accept this from defenders of the Anaconda as a strategy if the Anaconda reached that level of clarity. It doesn't. The Anaconda is the antithesis of strategy.

I will post the three most popular Anaconda citational texts in full late tonight so you can judge for yourself.

Assume Anaconda really is a strategy for a moment and ask yourself the next logical question: if a "strategy" is not implemented, is it a strategy at all? On a comedy record, Mony Python once asked, "Can a bee be half a bee, or must it* ipso facto half not be?"

Many Civil War historians vote for the bee equalling half a bee when they say the Anaconda was implemented over time as part of the unfolding war. I am on the *not* side. Strategy needs an actor, an implementor consciously applying it. Outcomes that resemble elements of earlier concepts are not strategies, nor are they vindications.

Most late war historians seem to take great pains to exclude analogies between McClellan's waterborne Richmond campaign and Grant's 1864 efforts - to the reader's detriment, I think, but that is neither here nor there. The point is outside of a contemporary report filed with the Prussian General Staff, no historian has suggested that Grant's activity in 1864 was a fulfillment of McClellan's plans. Some historians even take pains to distinguish overt correlations, such as the attack on Petersburg proposed by GBM in '62 from the attack made in '64.

The same reasoning should apply where there is a temptation to say that the Anaconda was fulfilled as the war progressed. The Anaconda was not a strategy, it was not a plan, and it was not fulfilled. Scott envisioned certain operations independent of specific outcomes and some of these were undertaken independently of his thinking to achieve results he never specified.

*it = the half bee


A token plan (cont.)

Let’s have some more fun with history. Please pull down any suitable ACW history you have and look up “Anaconda.” It tends to be indexed under Scott.

Go to the first reference and follow the end note (or footnote). You’ll find one reference given – at most, two. Collection permitting, pull another work and repeat the experiment. This is the neat part: you’ll again have just one reference (at most, two) but it/they may be different! My first three pulls yielded three separate single sources! Civil War history is a carnival fun house, for sure.

In this post, you’re going to get six references to the Anaconda, more, I think, than have ever appeared in one place in any work of Civil War history. At the end of this, you’ll be loaded for Anaconda.

Now, why would an author footnote this Anaconda business at all? This use of notation is out of line with historical practice (see addendum after the post). It baffles me why McPherson, Eicher, et al, were noting Anaconda and then, of all things, linking it to a single source.

Perhaps the author is telling the reader, “I am recapping information from this one source only.” Well, why would you embarrass yourself this way when the subject must be composited from multiple sources? Why call attention to lousy research?

If you want to footnote Anaconda, do as D.S. Freeman did on so many occasions; name all the sources, say how they differ or agree, and add whatever historiographic comment is appropriate.

On to the references:

(1) A recent history of Bull Run mentions the initial trace of the Anaconda taking form in Scott’s letter to Seward of March 3, 1861. If you look at the letter, it has a single remark about blockading ports if duties are not collected. This is not enough to mark the genesis of a more complex idea.

(2) A letter sent by McClellan to Scott on April 27 contains elements of a national strategy. Scott passes GBM’s missive on to Lincoln with marginalia critical of McClellan’s ideas. Scott’s comments run a mere 13 lines when printed out on 8.5x11” paper. The last two sentences propose a cordon of ships on the Mississippi and a seaboard blockade in lieu of McClellan’s proposals. This skimpy bit is cited by some authors as their second Anaconda reference given in addition to one of the substantive notes below. People who mention this source, however, miss an opportunity to observe that Scott’s last two sentences are abrupt in a way that suggests this topic was already known to Lincoln. The whole act of passing McClellan’s ideas on to Lincoln this way implies the rounding out of an earlier Scott-Lincoln discussion.

(3) Some authors cite Scott’s letter to McClellan of May 2, 1861 as their principal source. This letter runs to a total of four paragraphs. Just one paragraph outlines Scott’s broad conception of an advance down the Mississippi while the seaboard is blockaded. It lacks details or substance.

(4) Scott’s letter to McClellan dated May 21, 1861 is a favorite citation. This again is four paragraphs in length and only one paragraph contains elements of his strategic thinking. Scott here makes some suggestions and asks McClellan to (a) comment on the ideas and (b) offer specific details to round out the conception. Rather than representing a plan, this letter invites a discussion that could lead to a plan someday.

(5) Some mention that Scott shared his plans with newspapermen and that Anaconda was described in the press. A news report would seem to me to offer a more complete picture of this “plan” than the fragments of Scott’s own writings that are currently used. I have yet to see a specific newspaper reference cited by authors, however.

(6) Nicolay and Hay left an account of the Cabinet meeting of June 29, 1861, which is linked to Scott’s defense of the Anaconda by Detzer and the compilation Lincoln Day by Day. I don’t have N&H available as I write this, but it seems from the summaries that in the meeting, Scott proposed to start an army down the Mississippi while delaying McDowell’s advance into Virginia.

And there we have it; the skinny historiographical sticks on which pop history spins the china plates of its engrossing infotainment. Oddly enough, there is no plan on file, no memorandum in Lincoln’s or Seward’s papers, no preliminary orders, nor anything tangible to promote these scraps above the rank of concepts.

Even stone soup needs some ingredients.

On to the ideas next. Some correspondence will be posted separately.

Sherman Kent’s Writing History was published in 1941, during the great Lincoln revival that presaged the great ACW book boom, and Kent, then a Yale historian, said this about the use of citations:
Many of the statements made in the text demand validation. The reader has the right to ask, “Where did he get that?” and the writer has an obligation to answer. The reader however will not question all the statements. The parts of the essay he will especially wish to have footnoted are these: (1) all direct quotations, unless obviously familiar; (2) quotations and paraphrases of documents or passages from sources, monographs, and other secondary work; (3) statistical material … (4) iconoclastic remarks … statements which at first blush seem improbable; (5) new ideas from the sources not found in the texts and monographs; (6) specific statements from newspapers… Facts of common knowledge … need no citation..
The closest match to our Anaconda citers might be (2) in which the author is telling us he is paraphrasing a single source and inviting us to compare the paraphrase with the source. This is still bad citation and bad history as the Anaconda does not sit neatly summarized in a single source (again, with the possible exception of an undiscovered newspaper article somewhere).


A token plan

The simplest matters in Civil War history are obscured. How was McClellan commissioned? How did Lee come to command the Army of the Potomac? When was Pope relieved of the Army of Virginia?

There is a miasma surrounding so much in ACW history and at the same time such a high demand for authoritative narrative that the result is a kind of compressed representation of knowledge. To go back to Baudrillard, we are fed symbols, simulations that do duty in lieu of underlying facts (whose reality is unknown to the general reader). Let me call these “tokens,” which is shorter than “pop history’s wooden nickels.”

Token: Lincoln restored McClellan to command after Second Manassas. Token: Halleck restored McClellan to command after Second Manassas. These two misrepresentations easily coexist in Civil War literature because the underlying truth is of less than passing interest.

“The Anaconda Plan” is this type of symbol – a representation of something that is not but which is agreed upon as a necessary fiction to advance the narrative. Hitchcock called certain story elements “Maguffins,” creations that served no intrinsic purpose but to advance the plot. The Anaconda advances the plot.

The tale of the Union’s Civil War needs an early war strategy. If there is one, it can then pass through a character-like arc: it can fail; be revived; triumph. Or it can provide literary continuity through reference to its elements at different points in the chronology. Or it can pour a nice draft of “what-if” into the reader’s cup.

To find a strategy, we must find something simple enough for the laziest, most ill-informed reader to understand. A military plan per se would be to complex, with too many moving parts: motives, means, ends, actionability. What we need instead are some thought experiments, notions sketched in letters, exploratory “high concepts” with nothing to them except the power to excite the reader’s imagination. This is good token material. This is “the Anaconda Plan.”

“Plan” and “strategy” are military words with common meanings, just as some medical jargon has common meanings. Reading a medical history, we don’t want to see “fever,” “psycho,” etc., used in a street sense; and yet Civil War history is rife with references to “strategy” and “plans” in the same sense that I have a “strategy” or “plan” to stop off for milk on the way home from work. This too is the “Anaconda Plan.”

The “Anaconda Plan” is less egregious than many other Civil War tokens, but it is misleading and annoying and worth exploring further .