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American Civil War: Major General Nathaniel P. Banks

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American Civil War: Major General Nathaniel P. Banks

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Nathaniel Banks - Early Life & Career:

Born in Waltham, MA on January 30, 1816, Nathaniel Prentice Banks was the son of Nathaniel and Rebecca Banks. Receiving only a basic education, Banks began work at a nearby cotton mill as a young boy. Earning the nickname "Bobbin Boy Banks," he later apprenticed as a mechanic with Elias Howe. Escaping the factory, Banks worked as a newspaper editor before studying law under future US Senator Robert Rantoul. Passing the bar in 1839, he earned some notoriety for his skill at public speaking. Seeking a move to politics, Banks lost several local elections before winning a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1849. Initially a Democrat, he was made speaker in 1851 and chaired the 1853 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. Later that year, Banks parlayed his position into a seat in the US House of Representatives with the backing of both Democrats and Free-Soilers.

Nathaniel Banks - Political Rise:

Re-elected as a Know-Nothing in 1854, Banks accepted the support of the xenophobic, anti-Catholic party but held few of their views. Against slavery, he ran for Speaker of the House in the Thirty-Fourth Congress. After 133 ballots, Banks was able to unite the antislavery elements of several parties behind him and win the election. Appointing men who also held this view to key positions, he was able to investigate the Bleeding Kansas crisis and the caning of Senator Charles Sumner. Changing his political colors, Banks became an early leader in the new Republican Party and aided in the nomination of John C. Frémont for president in 1856. Resigning from Congress the following year, he served as governor of Massachusetts from 1858 to 1860. Failing to obtain the Republican nomination in 1860, Banks moved to Chicago, IL to serve as a director of the Illinois Central Railroad.

Nathaniel Banks - The Civil War Begins:

In the wake of the attack on Fort Sumter and start of the Civil War, Banks offered his services to President Abraham Lincoln. Recognizing his political value, Lincoln accepted and appointed him a major general of volunteers on May 16, 1861. It was the president's hope that Banks could deliver recruits and money to the Union cause. Later that month, he received orders to take command of the Department of Annapolis and was tasked with helping keep Maryland in the Union. Following Major General Robert Patterson's failure to react during the First Bull Run Campaign, Banks was ordered to relieve him and assume command of the Department of the Shenandoah on July 25. In early March 1862, Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson began evacuating Winchester, VA, and withdrawing up (moving southwest) the Shenandoah Valley. Though not directly threatened by Union forces, this shift was intended to cover the flank of General Joseph E. Johnston's army as it moved south from Manassas to protect Richmond from Major General George B. McClellan's impending Peninsula Campaign.

Nathaniel Banks - Shenandoah Valley:

Taking advantage of Jackson's retreat, Banks began advancing up the valley with two divisions led by Brigadier Generals James Shields and Alpheus S. Williams. Occupying Winchester on March 12, he soon learned that part of his forces were to be shifted to Washington in order to free up troops for McClellan. This news also reached Jackson who was instructed to keep the bulk of Banks' men in the valley. Advancing later in the month, he attacked Shields at the First Battle of Kernstown. Though a tactical defeat for the Confederates, the battle proved a strategic victory as Lincoln directed that Banks' command be reinforced rather than reduced. This directive prevented additional troops from being funneled to McClellan. Following Jackson, Banks pushed up the valley though his advance was hampered by supply problems.

In mid-April, Banks, mistakenly believing that Jackson was moving to aid Johnston at Richmond, requested permission to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains in pursuit. This request was denied and instead his command was reduced to a single division with instructions to assume a defensive position at Strasburg. At the same time, Jackson was reinforced and ordered to attack Banks. In May, he commenced operations in the valley by defeating part of Major General John C. Frémont's army at McDowell before beating part of Banks' command at Front Royal on May 23. Increasingly isolated at Strasburg, Banks began retreating north towards Winchester. Two days later, he was attacked and defeated by Jackson at the First Battle of Winchester. Escaping north, Banks exited the valley and crossed the Potomac at Williamsport, MD.

Nathaniel Banks - Jackson Again:

Working to restore order among his men, Banks played no further role in the fighting in the valley. In late June, his command was designated II Corps of Major General John Pope's newly-formed Army of Virginia. Pushing into central Virginia, Pope placed Banks' men near New Washington and Culpeper Court House. Having defeated McClellan on the Peninsula, Confederate forces, now led by General Robert E. Lee, began advancing north with Jackson in the lead. On August 9, Jackson's men encountered Banks near Cedar Mountain. Seeking retribution for his early defeats, Banks opened the Battle of Cedar Mountain with assaults on the Confederate line. In a day of heavy fighting, neither side gained an advantage. Banks' corps was not present later that month during Pope's defeat at Second Manassas.

Nathaniel Banks - To the Gulf:

After briefly overseeing the Washington defenses that fall, Banks received orders to take command of the Department of the Gulf in December 1862. Traveling to New Orleans with reinforcements recruited in New England, he relieved Major General Benjamin Butler. In a complex position, Banks was tasked with conducting military operations as well as overseeing the civil administration of Union-held areas of the state. In early spring 1862, he expanded Union control over the Bayou Teche area before moving against the Confederate stronghold at Port Hudson. Along with Vicksburg, MS, Port Hudson was one of two positions that blocked Union control of the Mississippi River. Advancing up the river, Banks surrounded Port Hudson on May 22. Attacking the town's fortifications on May 27, his troops were turned back by Major General Franklin Gardner's garrison.

Nathaniel Banks - Siege of Port Hudson:

Disheartened by the failed assault, Banks commenced the Siege of Port Hudson. Early June saw Union troops push siege lines close to the Confederate positions as well as conduct a systematic bombardment of the enemy's fortifications. Believing Gardner's lines to be sufficiently weakened, Banks planned a second assault for June 14. This was preceded by an intense bombardment a day earlier which was supported by Rear Admiral David G. Farragut's ships in the river. Charging forward the next day, Union troops were repulsed with heavy losses. On June 16, Banks asked for volunteers to make a third assault. Insufficient men came forward and the attack was cancelled. As the siege continued, Union engineering officers began constructing mines under the Confederate lines with the intent of detonating them on July 9. This proved unnecessary as Gardner surrendered on July 7 after learning of Major General Ulysses S. Grant's capture of Vicksburg three days earlier.

Nathaniel Banks - Red River Campaign:

With the capture of Port Hudson, Banks desired to strike east towards Mobile, AL. He was blocked in this by Lincoln who instructed him to conduct operations along the Texas coast as a deterrent to the French who were attempting to install Maximilian on the Mexican throne. Banks' initial efforts at Sabine Pass in September failed to gain a foothold, but a subsequent expedition against Brownsville in November saw Union forces take the town and surrounding area. During this time, Union general-in-chief Major General Henry W. Halleck repeatedly pushed Banks to conduct a campaign up the Red River to capture Shreveport, LA, eliminate enemy forces in the region, and seize cotton. This plan called for Banks to advance up Bayou Teche to Alexandria, LA where he would be joined by 15,000 men under Brigadier General A.J. Smith. This combined force, supported by Rear Admiral David D. Porter's gunboats, would then drive on Shreveport. To aid this effort, Major General Frederick Steele was directed to attack south from Arkansas.

Moving forward in March 1864, the campaign progressed slowly much to the ire of Grant. Having replaced Halleck that month, he saw it as a distraction from preparations for the coordinated offensives he had planned for May. Uniting with Smith on March 26, Banks led the combined force forward. Increasingly strung out due to a lack of camp sites and poor roads, his army was defeated by Lieutenant General Richard Taylor at Mansfield on April 8. Falling back to Pleasant Hill, Banks turned Taylor's attacks back the next day. Despite this victory, he elected to call off the campaign and retreated back to Alexandria. Reaching the town, problems arose regarding low water levels in the river which prevented Porter's gunboats from moving downstream. Putting his troops to work, Banks constructed a dam which allowed the river to rise enough to allow passage of the Union vessels.

Nathaniel Banks - Later War & Career

Following the campaign, Grant asked for Banks' removal. As a result, Major General Edward Canby assumed command of military forces in the region in May while Banks remained in control of the occupation of Louisiana. Departing on leave that fall, he returned to Washington where he lobbied Congress on behalf of Lincoln's reconstruction plans. Remaining in command of the Department of the Gulf until June 1865, Banks left military service two months later. That fall, he returned to Congress where he served as an advocate of westward expansion and the purchase of Alaska. Defeated in the 1872 elections, Banks regained his seat two years later and remained in office until 1879. Made a US Marshal by President Rutherford B. Hayes, he held this office until returning to Congress in 1889 for a final term. Banks died at Waltham, MA on September 1, 1894 and was buried in the town's Grove Hill Cemetery.

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