Nathaniel Prentice Banks (January 30, 1816 – September 1, 1894)

Updated: July 12, 2014

Nathaniel Prentice Banks was a ten-time member of the United States House of Representatives and, during the American Civil War, one of President Abraham Lincoln's political generals.

Nathaniel Prentice Banks was born in Waltham, Massachusetts on January 30, 1816. He was the first of nine children of Nathaniel P. Banks and Rebecca Greenwood. Banks attended common school in Massachusetts until the age of fourteen years, when he began working as a bobbin boy in the textile mill that his father managed. He also apprenticed as a mechanic. While working as a mechanic, Banks studied law and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1839, at the age of twenty-three years.

One year later Banks became interested in politics and supported local Democrats as editor of the Lowell Democrat (1840). When that newspaper ceased publication in 1841, Banks established the Middlesex Reporter, which failed one year later. In 1844, Banks tossed his own hat into the political ring, unsuccessfully running for a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

On April 11, 1847, Banks married Mary Theodosia Palmer who worked in a Waltham cotton mill. Their marriage produced four children.

The year 1847 also marked Banks's second unsuccessful bid to be elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The next year, however, he was elected as a member of the Free Soil Party, to the first of four one-year terms in the state legislature. In 1851 and 1852, he was the Speaker of the House. In addition to his legislative duties, Banks found time to edit another newspaper, the Rumford Journal, from1851 to 1852. Banks also served as president of the state constitutional convention of 1853.

Banks made his first appearance on the national political stage in 1853, after voters of the Massachusetts Seventh Congressional District elected him to the Thirty-third Congress (1853–1855) as a member of the Democratic Party. Two years later, voters elected Banks to the Thirty-fourth Congress (1855–1857) as a member of the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party. Banks served as Speaker of the House during his second term. In 1856, voters elected Banks to a third consecutive Congressional term, this time as a Republican. Banks resigned his seat in the Thirty-fifth Congress on December 24, 1857, after being elected Governor of Massachusetts. Banks served one term as governor, from January 1858 until January 1861. In 1860, Banks made an unsuccessful bid to become the Republican presidential candidate, losing out to Abraham Lincoln. At the expiration of his gubernatorial term, Banks moved his family to Chicago, where he succeeded George B. McClellan as director of the Illinois Central Railway.

After the American Civil War began, President Lincoln appointed Banks as a major general in the volunteer army, on May 16, 1861. Although Banks had no military training, Lincoln believed that Bank's political notoriety would generate support for the war. Banks's first assignment was commanding the Department of Annapolis, where he played a prominent role in suppressing Confederate sympathizers and keeping Maryland in the Union.

In July 1861, officials reassigned Banks and placed him in command of the Department of the Shenandoah. When Major General George McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign in March 1862, authorities charged Banks with the task of preventing Major General Stonewall Jackson's seventeen thousand Confederate soldiers from reinforcing the Southern defenses at Richmond, Virginia. Banks’s first encounter with Jackson at the Battle of Kernstown, on March 23, 1862, was a tactical victory for his Union forces. Nonetheless, President Lincoln recalled Banks's force up the valley, fearing that McClellan's absence had left Washington, D.C., open to a Confederate attack. Lincoln's decision eliminated any possibility of Banks eventually aiding McClellan's assault on Richmond. Banks’s next encounter with Jackson was at the Battle of Winchester I, on May 25, 1862. There, Jackson inflicted a sound beating on the Federals, forcing Banks to withdraw north across the Potomac River. The final encounter between the two generals was at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, on August 9, 1862. There, Banks came close to inflicting a critical defeat on Jackson, but a late-day charge by Major General A.P. Hill repulsed a Union assault and sent the Yankees fleeing. Banks lost so many supplies during his encounters that Confederate soldiers began referring to him as "Commissary Banks."

After the defeat at Cedar Mountain, Banks assumed command of the Military District of Washington, D.C. During his brief stint of two months there, Banks oversaw improvements to the capital's defensive network of forts and trenches.

In December 1862, Banks transferred to New Orleans with thirty thousand soldiers whom he helped recruit from the New England area. There, he replaced fellow Massachusetts resident and political general Benjamin F. Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf. During his first few months in command, Banks focused on easing tensions in New Orleans attributed to Butler's harsh occupation policies.

In May 1863, Banks led an expeditionary force up the Mississippi River past Baton Rouge to subdue the river town of Port Hudson. After reducing Port Hudson, Banks was to proceed upriver and to assist Major General Ulysses S. Grant in capturing the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, but events did not go as planned. Rebels defenders repulsed attacks on May 27 and June 14, 1863, resulting in high Union casualties. Among the Federal troops participating in the assaults were the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard, the first all-black units to fight in the Civil War. Unable to overpower the defenders of Port Hudson, Banks settled on investing the town. As a result of this decision, Banks's instructions to assist Grant proved fruitless. The defenders at Port Hudson did not submit until July 9, after they received word that Vicksburg had surrendered on July 4. Despite his failure to support Grant, Banks received an official "Thanks of Congress" for his part in securing control of the Mississippi River.

While Banks and Grant were establishing Union domination of the Mississippi River, France was installing a puppet regime in Mexico ,ruled by the Emperor Maximilian I. Fearing that the new Mexican monarch might provide aid to Texas and the Confederacy, Union officials ordered Banks to establish a military presence in Texas. In the autumn of 1863, Banks led two combined Army-Navy expeditions into Texas. The first resulted in a humiliating Union defeat, as a Confederate garrison of thirty-six infantrymen repulsed an amphibious assault by five thousand Federals at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863. Banks returned to Texas two months later and succeeded in landing an invasion force near the mouth of the Rio Grande on November 2, 1863. He quickly occupied Brownsville, Texas and surrounding coastal regions, discouraging French support of the Confederacy.

Banks's success in November fueled aspirations of President Lincoln and Army Chief-of-Staff Henry Halleck to subjugate Texas. Over the objections of Ulysses S. Grant and Banks, Halleck ordered Banks to mount an offensive up the Red River to gain control of northwestern Louisiana and to secure a passageway to invade eastern Texas. The three-pronged attack, utilizing a combined army-navy force, commenced on March 12, 1864. Two months later, Banks limped back to New Orleans, after failing to reach Shreveport, suffering high casualties, and leaving the Trans-Mississippi area in Confederate hands. Banks was ruined militarily by the debacle. Shortly after Banks returned to southern Louisiana, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders No. 192, on May 7, 1864. The order placed the Department of the Gulf under the dominion of the newly created Division of West Mississippi, commanded by Major General Edward Canby. Reduced to an administrative role, Banks would never again command troops in the field.

Banks remained on as commander of the Department of the Gulf until September 23, 1864, when he was temporarily replaced by Major General Stephen G. Hurlbut, after being granted a leave of absence. Banks returned to the East, where he lobbied for Abraham Lincoln's reconstruction plans for Louisiana, as well as for the President's reelection. During his stay, Banks was called upon to testify before the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War concerning his role in the Red River fiasco, as well as irregularities regarding the cotton trade in the Department of the Gulf.

After Radical elements of the Republican Congress scuttled Lincoln's efforts to re-admit Louisiana to the Union, the President, on March 15, 1864, ordered Banks to return to Louisiana. By April 21, Banks was back in New Orleans, and on the next day he resumed command of the Department of the Gulf. Banks briefly stayed on until June 3, 1865, by which time the war was over.

On August 24, 1865, Banks mustered out of the volunteer army and resumed his political career. Later that year, he won election to fill a vacancy in the Thirty-ninth Congress, representing Massachusetts's Sixth Congressional district. He was reelected as a Republican to the Fortieth, Forty-first, and Forty-second Congresses, serving until March 3, 1873. During much of that time, he was Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and chair of the Republican Congressional Caucus.

A break with President Grant prompted Banks to join the short-lived Liberal Republican Party and to endorse Horace Greeley in the presidential election of 1872. Without the support of the president and mainstream Republicans, Banks lost his seat in the House that year. The next year, voters elected him as an independent to the Massachusetts Senate.

In 1874, voters from Massachusetts's Fifth Congressional district elected Banks to represent them in the Forty-fourth Congress (1875–1877) as an independent candidate. Two years later, they reelected him to the Forty-fifth Congress (1877–1879) as a Republican. After Banks failed to be renominated in 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him as a U.S. Marshal on March 11, 1879. Banks served in that capacity until April 23, 1888. That fall, voters from Massachusetts's Fifth Congressional district elected Banks to represent them in Congress once again. Banks served his tenth and final term in the Fifty-first Congress from 1889 to 1891. During Banks's last term in Congress, his mental capacities deteriorated, probably due to Alzheimer's disease. After failing to secure re-nomination, in 1890, Banks retired from politics and returned to Waltham. Banks died in his home on September 1, 1894 and was buried at Grove Hill Cemetery in his native city.

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