Nathaniel Banks, 1816-1894

Nathaniel Banks was a politician and soldier whose early career was concentrated in his native state of Massachusetts. He had a varied early career, including spells working in his father’s cotton mill and a period as a newspaper proprietor and editor. He qualified as a lawyer, but did not practise, and even considered becoming an actor. However, during most of this period he was also building up a reputation as a public speaker at town meetings in his home town of Waltham.

His political career got off to a faltering start. On his seventh attempt he was elected to the lower branch of the Massachusetts legislature in 1849 where he sat as a Democrat. In 1851 he was made speaker of the House as part of a coalition deal with the Free-Soilers. 1853 saw him chosen as president of the Massachusetts constitutional assembly, and also enter Congress for the first of his ten terms in that body. One feature of his time in Congress was that he repeatedly changed aliegance. For his first term he was a Democrat. Next, he was elected as an “American”, or “Know-Nothing”. In this guise he was elected as Speaker of the Thirty-Fourth Congress, on 2 February 1856 after an amazing 133 ballots! He was elected partly because of his free-soil anti-slavery opinions, but once in office he tried to act in a non-political way. He is generally accepted to have been a very fine speaker of the house.

In 1857 he left Congress and stood for governor of Massachusetts for the new Republican Party. He defeated the three-term incumbent, and held the post for three years (1858-60). While in that office he significantly improved the state militia. He left office in January 1861, with the intention of moving into private life as the new president of the Illinois Central Railroad, taking over from George B. McClellan.

The outbreak of the civil war intervened. Like many others he responded to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter by offering his services to President Lincoln. His offer was accepted, and on 16 May he was appointed Major-General of Volunteers. His war record would be generally acceptable with one major blemish towards the end of the war.

His military career started at Annapolis. Pro-southern sentiment was widespread in Maryland, but the presence of Washington D.C. on the southern border of the state meant that could not be allowed to secede. Banks played a part in securing that state for the Union. In the aftermath of First Bull Run, he was moved to Harper’s Ferry (23 July 1861), to replace General Patterson (the man who had allowed Stonewall Jackson to move his troops from the Valley to Bull Run unopposed).

There Banks was to be caught up in the general chaos caused by McClellan’s Peninsula campaign of 1862. At the start of the campaign Banks had three divisions in the Shenandoah Valley. McClellan had included these men in his plans for the defence of Washington once the main Army of the Potomac had moved to the Peninsula. However, he had not explained his plans to President Lincoln, and so the President kept back part of the Army of the Potomac to bolster the defences of the Federal capitol.

This meant that Banks’s men were no longer needed for that duty. Plans were made to transfer two of his three divisions to the Peninsula to reinforce McClellan. News of this reached the Confederate commander in the Valley, Stonewall Jackson. His job was to keep Banks’s men pinned down in the valley. On 23 March 1862 Jackson thought he had found an isolated rearguard from one of Banks’s divisions, and launched an attack on it with his 4,200 (First battle of Kernstown). In fact he had found an entire division, and suffered a serious defeat.

Jackson’s attack caused great concern in Washington, where it was assumed that Jackson’s attack was deliberate, and therefore that he must have an army large enough to take on an entire division. The transfer of Banks’s men was temporarily postponed.

By the time it was resumed, Jackson had been reinforced. On 23 May his newly strengthened army fell on the Union garrison at Front Royal, temporarily threatening to cut of Banks, who was at Strasburg, west of Front Royal. The next day, Banks managed to conduct a skilful retreat to Winchester, but on 25 May his army was defeated there (First battle of Winchester), and he was forced to retreat back across the Potomac. Roughly one third of his force was lost (mostly captured) during this retreat.

Jackson escaped from the federal pursuit that followed, and joined Lee at Richmond in time to take part in most of the Seven Days’ Battles. Meanwhile, the Federal forces in western Virginia were reorganised, and brought together under the command of General John Pope. Pope concentrated his army between the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers, where it could threaten Lee’s lines of communication with the Shenandoah. Banks was posted at Cedar Mountain, eight miles south of Culpeper and close to the Rapidan River, with a force 8,000 strong.

Here he was soon face to face with Jackson once again. As the Peninsula campaign wound down on the James River, Jackson had been sent west to delay Pope. By early August he had 24,000 men just south of the Rapidan, and decided to launch an attack on Banks’s slightly isolated position. The Battle of Cedar Mountain (9 August 1862) did not go as Jackson had planned. Banks launched a pre-emptive assault on the Rebel force, and came close to breaking part of Jackson’s army. However, weight of numbers soon brought his attack to a halt, and he was forced to retreat until he met some reinforcements heading south. Jackson was also forced to retreat as Pope’s army concentrated against him.

Banks was not involved in the Second Battle of Bull Run. He was involved in an argument with Pope over his attack at Cedar Mountain. Pope had given Banks orders to attack the enemy if he approached, but after the battle claimed that those orders did not authorise this particular attack. Not surprisingly, Banks was judged to have acted well within his orders in making the attack, although was criticised for the attack itself.

His next senior command was in a totally different theatre of war. At the end of 1862 he replaced Benjamin Butler in command at New Orleans. Here he faced military and civil problems.

Banks’s main civil problem was that he had to reconstruct a Louisiana under pressure from a wide range of factions. A small conservative group of planters wanted to work within the old framework.  A bigger, more radical group, mostly from New Orleans, wanted to start from scratch, with a new state constitution. Lincoln supported the radicals, but Banks eventually sided with the conservatives, partly because this approach would produce quicker results. This decision caused a great deal of controversy, but did result in fresh elections on 22 February 1864. The turnout was reasonably high - although it was only one quarter of that recorded in 1860, not all of the state was in Union hands – and resulted in the victory of a moderate faction.

More controversial, and probably more damaging, was Banks’s response to the problem of what status the newly freed slaves would have. His response was a military order forcing plantation labourers to work for a fixed wage, on year-long contracts, and with no automatic right to leave their plantation. Understandably, many saw this as a continuation of slavery under another name. That was probably not Banks’s original intention. Instead, he was faced with the problem of how to deal with a large population who had suddenly become “labouring, landless and homeless”.  Sadly, what was meant to be a temporary war-time expedient would carry on into the post war world.

Banks’s military career in the west began reasonably well. In March and April 1863 he established Union control over the rich Bayou Teche area. However, his main problem was Port Hudson, one of only two remaining Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi. While U.S. Grant was moving against Vicksburg, Banks had the job of taking Port Hudson. Just as Grant was to do at Vicksburg, Banks began with a frontal assault, on 27 May. This was repulse with heavy losses, and was notable on the Union side only for the fighting ability show by two regiments of black soldiers from Louisiana, whose cause was championed by Banks. A second assault was also repulsed with heavy losses on 14 June. However, when news of the fall of Vicksburg reached the defenders of Port Hudson, they had no choice but to surrender (9 July 1863). The Mississippi was once again open to Northern shipping.

This was probably the high point of Banks’s war. Together with U.S. Grant, Banks wanted to move east, toward Mobile, one of the few ports still open to Confederate blockade runners. However, for perfectly valid political reasons, Lincoln needed the Union flag to appear in Texas. Over the border in Mexico the French were attempting to put the Emperor Maximilian on the Mexican throne, with Confederate support. Lincoln wanted to make sure that no Mexican help came across the Texan border.

Banks made a series of attempts to obey his orders. The first, an attack on Sabine Pass in September 1863 failed. The second, along the coast, succeeded in capturing Brownsville (November 1863), and may have played a significant part in reducing Napoleon III’s support for Maximilian. However, he did not have the men to hold his new position and was soon forced to withdraw back to New Orleans.

This same focus on Texas and the west bank of the Mississippi blighted Banks’s operations in 1864. In U.S. Grant’s grand plan for the year, Banks had been allocated the task of capturing Mobile, before moving north into Alabama to prevent reinforcements been sent against Sherman as he moved south towards Atlanta. Instead, Banks was sent up the Red River, towards Shreveport, close to the Texas border. This campaign had two main aims – first to bring more of Louisiana under Union control, and second to seize the cotton believed to be abundant in the area.

The Red River campaign was poorly planned from the start. Banks was meant to be supported by a second expedition coming south from Little Rock, Arkansas. This expedition moved too slowly, and was eventually forced to retreat after the failure of Banks’s own attack. A formidable river fleet was also sent to help Banks, but the Red River was only just navigable at the best of times, and 1864 was to see the river rise late and fall early, leaving the fleet dangerously exposed to capture.

Banks’s own advance reached within 35 miles of Shreveport before coming to grief. His army was dangerously stretched out along a single road. On 8 April the advance guard was attacked at Sabine Crossroads, and badly defeated. The next day the Confederate army under Richard Taylor attacked Banks again at Pleasant Hill. This time the result was a draw, but Banks was unnerved by the two battles, and decided to retreat. His rapid retreat left the gunboats dangerously exposed and in danger of being trapped by falling water. Only some impressive dam building on the river enabled them to escape.

This defeat ended Banks’s active military career. He remaining in command of the occupation of Louisiana, but General E. R. S. Canby replaced him in command of the army west of the Mississippi. The Red River expedition was badly conceived, something for which Banks can take no blame, but his conduct of the operation was poor. The Committee on the Conduct of the War certainly felt that he was largely to blame for the failure of the expedition.

Banks remained in the army until 24 August 1865, when he was honourably mustered out. He returned to Massachusetts and to politics. This time he was elected to the House of Representatives, as a Republican. After a brief gap (1873-5) partly caused by an argument with President Grant, he returned again, this time as a Democrat, before switching to the Republicans again in 1877. From 1879 to 1888 he served as United States marshal for Massachusetts, before returning to Congress once more in 1888, again as a Republican. After this final period of service he retired to Walton in ill health, dying four years later. Banks was not a great general, but he was by no means the worst of the political generals, and did display some military ability, notably in the retreat before the first battle of Winchester, and in the initial assault at Cedar Mountain. As a military administrator he was controversial, but no more than his predecessor.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (3 September 2007), Nathaniel Banks, 1816-1894,

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