Weren't there far more strategic places to capture? Places like Atlanta, Richmond, Memphis, New Orleans?
Attribute it to something called the "Anaconda" strategy … a military plan flavored by the observations of an unsung daughter of a former governor of Maryland.
U.S. General-In-Chief Winfield Scott originally devised the plan to squeeze the Confederacy into submission. Scott outlined it in a May 3, 1861 letter to his protégé, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Simply put, the plan called for a blockade of Southern ports and a strong thrust down the Mississippi Valley by a large army. A series of Federal outpoints would be established isolating the disorganized Confederate states.
McClellan reportedly referred to it as Scott's "boa constrictor" plan, which was quickly renamed "Anaconda" by the war-crazed Union press, which criticized it as being much too passive.
However, President Lincoln did order a naval blockade following the April 1861 attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. But the small U.S. Navy didn't have the ships to adequately patrol some 3,000 miles of the Southern coast.
When war actually began, Lincoln appointed Gen. Irvin McDowell to command the U.S. army. Lincoln ordered McDowell to attack and capture Richmond, the new seat of the Confederate government.
On July 21, 1861, McDowell and his army engaged Confederate forces at Bull Run. Led by experienced commanders Joseph E. Johnson, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, James "Jeb" Stuart and Pierre Beauregard, the Confederates easily routed the green Union troops, sending them literally running back to Washington, D.C. Several members of Congress, who were there to witness the battle, were nearly captured as well.
The South won the first major battle of the war with Federal casualties totaling 1,492 with another 1,216 missing. U.S. officials and the press blamed McDowell for the defeat. He was relieved from duty and was replaced by Scott's protégé, McClellan, who devised his own "grand strategy" to win the war.
McClellan proposed establishing a Napoleonic-style army of 273,000 men and then invading Virginia from the sea while seizing Richmond and other major cities in the South. McClellan's imperious attitude bedeviled his mentor, Scott, as well as Lincoln, who McClellan called "a baboon-faced buffoon."
"Genl Scott is the great obstacle—he will not comprehend the danger & is either a traitor, or an incompetent. I have to fight my way against him," McClellan wrote his wife.
Despite his immense ego, the 34-year-old McClellan was still appointed general-in-chief following Scott's retirement at the end of October 1861. McClellan immediately reorganized his army and began to actively pursue a policy of not fighting the Confederates for a variety of reasons. December came and went, and McClellan still hadn't attacked and had not moved troops into East Tennessee to protect the Unionists there. During this period, McClellan became seriously ill with typhoid fever.
Pressed by the Radical Republicans, Lincoln removed the corrupt and ineffective Secretary of War Simon Cameron and replaced him with Edwin Stanton, who was to implement a revised version of the Anaconda plan. Looking over Lincoln's shoulder was the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War chaired by Sen. Ben Wade of Ohio. The committee was particularly overzealous when it came to the selection of Union generals and the development of strategy.
On Jan. 6, 1862, Lincoln met at length with the committee.
Wade had received word of a viable alternate to McClellan's "grand strategy."
Lincoln quietly disclosed to Wade that the plan wasn't the work of the War Department or even a general.
Anna Ella Carroll, the daughter of the former governor of Maryland, drafted the report. Carroll was a unique figure in 19th century politics. She was active in Whig and Know-Nothing party politics and was an effective political tract writer during the 1850s. Her writings and works were instrumental in keeping her Southern-leaning home state in the Union. That led to a consulting position with the Lincoln administration, writing papers on "The War Powers of the Government" and "The Relation of Revolted Citizens to the National Government."
She was the daughter of Thomas King Carroll and served as his aide. He was a descendant of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who was the last living signer of The Declaration of Independence.
She was well known nationally for an article she wrote ripping former Vice President John C. Breckinridge. It was instrumental in Breckinridge being kicked out of the U.S. Senate, where he was representing Kentucky. Breckinridge was to later lead a Confederate division during the Battle of Stones River.
Carroll was dispatched in mid-1861 to St. Louis, where she had relatives, to study the Mississippi Valley region. After interviewing riverboat pilots and captains, she came to the conclusion that the sluggish Federal ironclads would have trouble navigating the heavy current of the Mississippi River. The heavy ships had a top speed of about 5 knots, which was about the same as Old Muddy's current. She discovered that both the Tennessee and Cumberland could handle ironclads and supply ships year round and both rivers were more difficult for Confederates to defend. Capturing the area would also allow access to the Confederate west-east railroads at places like Nashville and Chattanooga.
Carroll wrote a letter to Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Scott, outlining her suggested modification of the Anaconda plan. Scott conveyed the plan to Lincoln, which was ultimately to be executed by Secretary of War Stanton.
Her plan proved to be successful when combined with hammer strikes by Gens. U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Middle Tennessee, a breadbasket suitable for feeding an army, was to feed Union troops. Meanwhile, Lincoln, displaying a new assertiveness, issued President's War Order No. 1, setting a deadline for McClellan to act.
Naturally, Carroll, being a woman, didn't receive credit for her contribution to the war effort. Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck and Grant became heroes. She did receive slight acknowledgement at the time from Stanton, Sen. Wade and Rep. Roscoe Conklin.
After the war, debate continued over Carroll's contribution to the Union strategy.
Scott, the assistant secretary of war, clearly acknowledged her role:
PHILADELPHIA, May 1, 1872
My Dear Sir: I take pleasure in stating that the plan presented by Miss Carroll, in November, 1861, for a campaign upon the Tennessee River and thence South, was submitted to the Secretary of War and President Lincoln. And after Secretary Stanton's appointment, I was directed to go to the Western armies and arrange to increase their effective force as rapidly as possible. A part of the duty assigned me was the organization and consolidation into regiments of all the troops then being recruited in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, for the purpose of carrying through this campaign, then inaugurated.
This work was vigorously prosecuted by the army, and, as the valuable suggestions of Miss Carroll, made to the Department some months before, were substantially carried out through the campaigns in that section--great successes followed, and the country was largely benefited in the saving of time and expenditure.
I hope Congress will reward Miss Carroll liberally for her patriotic efforts and services.
Very Truly, yours,
THOMAS A. SCOTT
Long after the war, several of her supporters pushed for official recognition of Carroll's efforts. It finally came and with it a $50 monthly pension.