Nathaniel Prentiss Banks (1816–1894)


Nathaniel Prentiss Banks was a Massachusetts state legislator (1849–1853), a ten-term United States Congressman (1853–1857, 1865–1873, 1875–1879, 1889–1891), Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (1856–1857), governor of Massachusetts (1858–1861), and a Union general during the American Civil War (1861–1865). One of the most prominent political generals of the conflict, Banks lacked military talent and experience but rose to high command on the strength of his public stature and his staunch support of the administration of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, despite having been one of Lincoln’s political rivals in 1860. Banks’s tendency to subordinate military affairs to political ambition, his penchant for grandiose planning without devoting sufficient attention to tactical details, and his inability to admit or correct mistakes ensured that a once-promising career in arms would fall short of expectations. As commander of the Department of the Shenandoah, he was outmaneuvered by Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in 1862, especially on May 25 at the Battle of Winchester. Jackson defeated him again at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, after which Banks was transferred to New Orleans, Louisiana. In the spring of 1864, he participated in the botched Red River Campaign in Texas, ending his field command. Banks returned to Congress after the war and died in Massachusetts in 1894.

Early Life

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 was elected president in November of that year.

Virginia Operations

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 the First Battle of Manassas ended 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 Kernstown on March 23, 1862.

Before Kernstown, Banks had led his main army eastward to reinforce Union general George B. McClellan at the outset of the latter’s Peninsula Campaign. 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 Shenandoah Valley 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 Battle of McDowell 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 Winchester 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 John Pope‘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 Second Manassas Campaign 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 Benjamin F. Butler. But when Banks took the field in the spring of 1863, his tactical incapacity resurfaced. Ordered to cooperate with Major General Ulysses S. Grant 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.

Later Years

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.

January 30, 1816
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks is born in Waltham, Massachusetts, the son of Nathaniel Prentiss Banks Sr. and Rebecca Greenwood Banks.
April 11, 1847
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks weds Mary Theodosia Palmer in Providence, Rhode Island. The couple will eventually have four children.
November 7, 1848
After several failed campaigns, Nathaniel Prentiss Banks is elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He serves until 1853, for most of that period as the body's speaker.
March 4, 1853
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks begins his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is reelected in 1854 and 1856.
February 2, 1856
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks is elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He serves until December 24, 1857, when he resigns to become governor of Massachusetts.
December 24, 1857
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks resigns as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives to become governor of Massachusetts.
January 7, 1858
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks begins his term as governor of Massachusetts.
January 3, 1861
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks ends his term as governor of Massachusetts.
May 16, 1861
President Abraham Lincoln appoints Nathaniel Prentiss Banks a major general of U.S. Volunteers.
June 11, 1861
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks assumes command of the Department of Annapolis, with headquarters at Baltimore.
July 25, 1861
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks succeeds Major General Robert Patterson as commander of the Department of the Shenandoah.
March—June 1862
A small Confederate army under Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson defeats Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
June 26, 1862
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks is assigned to command the Second Corps of the Union's Army of Virginia.
August 9, 1862
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks's Union corps acquits itself well in the Battle of Cedar Mountain but is forced to withdraw after absorbing Jackson's eleventh-hour counterattack.
September 8, 1862
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks is assigned to command the defenses of Washington, D.C. He serves until October 27, when he is superseded by Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman.
December 15, 1862
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks replaces Major General Benjamin F. Butler in command of the Department of the Gulf, headquartered at New Orleans, Louisiana.
May 23, 1863
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks's army begins to invest Port Hudson, Louisiana. Despite three failed attacks on the garrison, it holds out until forced to surrender in the aftermath of the fall of Vicksburg.
July 9, 1863
After three ill-conceived attacks on Port Hudson, Louisiana, Union general Nathaniel Prentiss Banks's Nineteenth Corps finally forces the Confederate garrison's surrender.
November 2, 1863
After several delays and defeats, Nathaniel Prentiss Banks's Union troops gain a foothold on the Texas coast near Brownsville, thus supporting Mexican forces opposing the French invaders of their country.
March 10, 1864
The ill-starred Red River Campaign gets under way, too late to make a contribution to the overall strategy of the newly assigned Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant.
March 23, 1864
During the Red River Campaign, Union troops under Nathaniel Prentiss Banks belatedly start up the Red River from recently occupied Alexandria, Louisiana.
April 8—9, 1864
Union troops under Nathaniel Prentiss Banks are soundly defeated in the battles of Sabine Cross Roads (Mansfield) and Pleasant Hill, effectively ending the Red River Campaign.
April 22, 1864
At Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant's order, Nathaniel Prentiss Banks is removed from field command.
April 24, 1864
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks is mustered out of the volunteer service.
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks serves in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican representing Massachusetts's Sixth Congressional District. He fills a vacancy caused by the resignation of Daniel W. Gooch.
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks serves in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican representing Massachusetts's Fifth Congressional District.
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks serves in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican representing Massachusetts's Fifth Congressional District.
September 1, 1894
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks dies in his native city of Waltham, Massachusetts. He is buried in Grove Hill Cemetery.
  • Harrington, Fred Harvey. Fighting Politician: Major General N. P. Banks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1948.
  • Hollandsworth, James G., Jr. Pretense of Glory: The Life of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
APA Citation:
Longacre, Edward. Nathaniel Prentiss Banks (1816–1894). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/banks-nathaniel-prentiss-1816-1894.
MLA Citation:
Longacre, Edward. "Nathaniel Prentiss Banks (1816–1894)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 22 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.