Banks was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, on January 30, 1816, the son of Nathaniel Prentiss Banks and Rebecca Greenwood Banks. At age fourteen he dropped out of school to work in a cotton mill, where his father was foreman. The nickname he earned there—”Bobbin Boy”—proved helpful when he later stumped for votes among working-class Democrats. Later he worked in a customs house, edited a newspaper, and studied law, gaining admittance to the Massachusetts state bar at age twenty-three.
Banks developed an abiding interest in local and national politics early in his career. Impressed by his energy and native intelligence, Democratic leader Robert Rantoul Jr. groomed the young man for the Massachusetts political arena. Banks soon became known for his handsome attire; an erect posture that made him appear taller than his five feet eight inches; and a powerful, resonant speaking voice that captivated audiences. On April 11, 1847, he married Mary Theodosia Palmer in Providence, Rhode Island. The couple had four children.
Early Political Career
After several failed campaigns, Banks was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives on November 7, 1848, serving until 1853. In 1851, he was elected Speaker of the House. Banks began his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 4, 1853, representing the Seventh Congressional District. Although viewed as a rising star of the Democratic Party, he maintained close ties with leaders of the Free Soil Party, which had strong New England roots. In March 1854 he gained national prominence by bucking his party’s support of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which became law a few months later. Banks’s opposition to the legislation, which would have allowed voters to approve slavery in their states, was largely based on his reading of local opinion. Even so, historians regard it as one of the most courageous acts of his long political career.
In 1854 Banks switched his allegiance to the American, or Know Nothing, Party and, along with Democratic backing, won a second term in the House. While he espoused the progressive policies of the Know Nothings, he did not share its anti-immigrant bias. After an exhausting 133-ballot vote, Banks was elected Speaker of the House on February 2, 1856. Later that year he again changed his party affiliation to support John C. Frémont, the new Republican Party’s first United States presidential candidate. Reelected to the House as a Republican, Banks resigned his seat in December 1857 after winning election as governor of Massachusetts. In 1860, despite an energetic campaign, he failed to outmaneuver Abraham Lincoln for the Republican presidential nomination. Lincoln wasin November of that year.
When the American Civil War erupted in 1861, President Lincoln appointed Banks a major general of the U.S. Volunteers. He realized that Banks lacked military experience, a handicap in an army controlled by professional soldiers, but the man’s political stature would generate public support for the war effort. For his part, Banks appreciated the political benefits of a successful career in arms, and the color and excitement of military life appealed to his sense of the dramatic.
Banks’s active service began when he was assigned to head the Department of Annapolis, a stepping-stone to field command. On July 21, 1861, when theended in Union defeat, he was transferred to command the Department of the Shenandoah, where Union troops opposed Confederates under Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Though no match for the eccentric but brilliant Jackson, Banks won the first major encounter when a subordinate, Brigadier General James Shields, dealt Jackson a surprising defeat at on March 23, 1862.
Before Kernstown, Banks had led his main army eastward to reinforce Union generalat the outset of the latter’s . Lincoln and the War Department, however, began to suspect that Jackson, too, had been reinforced; thus Banks was assigned to command one of a trio of hastily organized armies charged with ridding the of the Confederate leader. Lacking overall leadership, the armies failed to concentrate against Jackson, who defeated one of them—commanded by Banks’s political ally John Frémont—at the on May 8, and then turned against Banks at Strasburg. Finding his outposts driven in and his rear threatened, Banks fell back toward the Potomac River. Jackson’s hard-marching “foot cavalry” caught up with him at on May 25 and gave him a severe beating. Refusing to admit the extent of his defeat, Banks minimized his army’s losses and described its panicky retreat north of the Potomac River as an orderly withdrawal.
Despite his efforts at self-delusion, Banks saw his reputation sink as a result of the loss at Winchester. In mid-June he was transferred to the disputed territory between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers and was reduced to command of the Second Corps in‘s newly formed Army of Virginia. On August 9, 1862, Banks, commanding Pope’s advance, encountered Jackson’s Confederates south of Cedar Mountain, near Culpeper Court House. Although he held Jackson at bay for most of the day-long battle, Banks used up his reserves in a series of partially successful assaults. When counterattacked early in the evening, he was compelled to fall back. By then, however, he had won the respect not only of Pope, who cited Banks’s “gallant and intrepid conduct” throughout the fight, but of Jackson himself, who later wrote, “I always felt he [Banks] fought well.” Hobbled by an injury received in a riding mishap, Banks was ordered to Washington, D.C. Thus he was not involved in the failed at the end of August.
Department of the Gulf
In December 1862, after a brief stint in charge of the defense forces of the capital, Banks was transferred to New Orleans, Louisiana, to command the Department of the Gulf. By ruling with a politic hand, he stabilized control of a city whose residents had been driven to the brink of rebellion by his predecessor, fellow Massachusetts political general. But when Banks took the field in the spring of 1863, his tactical incapacity resurfaced. Ordered to cooperate with Major General against the stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the glory-seeking New Englander allowed himself to be sidetracked. Instead of supporting Grant directly, Banks’s Nineteenth Corps ascended the Mississippi River to Port Hudson, Louisiana. Three ill-conceived attacks on the river installation cost Banks several hundred casualties. The besieged garrison did not surrender until July 9, five days after Vicksburg fell to Grant.
In the autumn of 1863, Banks organized two seaborne expeditions against Confederate enclaves in Texas, gaining a foothold near the mouth of the Rio Grande River at Brownsville. Though undertaken mainly as a means of holding in place the French forces that had invaded Mexico, these offensives placed Banks in a position to invade the interior of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi. The project had long been promoted by Lincoln and general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck. It was opposed, however, by Grant (Halleck’s successor) as well as by Banks himself, who favored an expedition against such coastal cities as Galveston, Texas, and Mobile, Alabama. Eventually, however, Banks agreed to undertake the operation.
As Grant foresaw, the expedition proved a costly blunder. On March 23, 1864, Banks belatedly started up the Red River from recently occupied Alexandria, Louisiana, only to be halted by Confederate forces under Major General Richard Taylor at Sabine Cross Roads, near Mansfield, on April 8,. Outflanked and routed by Taylor’s smaller force, Banks fell back to Pleasant Hill, where the following day he suffered another humiliating defeat. On May 19 his troops reached Simsport, Louisiana, ending a campaign that Major General William T. Sherman—who had provided reinforcements for Banks—called “one damn blunder from beginning to end.” The losses suffered during the aborted offensive, added to widespread speculation that one of Banks’s objectives had been to seize contraband cotton for government and perhaps personal profit, effectively ended his military career. By order of Grant, he was removed from field command on April 22, 1864. Through much of the remainder of the war he ran political errands for the Lincoln administration.
Mustered out of the service on August 24, 1865, Banks returned to Congress, where he represented Massachusetts’s Sixth District until 1873, for much of that period as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In 1872 he bolted the Republicans to support Horace Greeley, the Liberal Party candidate for president, a mistake that cost him his seat in the ensuing election and doomed future efforts to gain the presidency on the Republican ticket. Reelected to the House in 1874 as a Republican representing the Fifth District, he served until 1879, when he was appointed U.S. marshal for Massachusetts. In 1888 he won yet another term (his tenth) in the House, again representing the Fifth District. Deteriorating health cost him an opportunity for renomination and forced his return to Waltham, where he died on September 1, 1894.