General Nathaniel Banks
Facts, information and articles about Nathaniel Banks, a Union Civil War General during the American Civil War
Nathaniel Banks Facts
January 30, 1816
September 1, 1894
Major general, U.S. Volunteers
Highest Rank Achieved
Major general, U.S. Volunteers
Cedar Mountain Port Hudson
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Nathaniel Banks summary: Nathaniel P. Banks was made a major general in the Civil War because of his political connections; he had no prior military training or experience. From Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to the Red River of Louisiana, Banks suffered one defeat after another. Because he had been a U.S. Congressman before the war, Congress awarded him one of the 14 Thanks of Congress.
However dismal his Civil War record, Nathaniel P. Banks was a self-made man. As a child in his native Massachusetts, he worked in a cotton mill, which later gave rise to his nickname, "Bobbin Boy." Entering politics, he served five different parties, at various time, becoming speaker of the Massachusetts legislature’s lower house, a U.S. Congressman, and governor. After the war, he would return to serve in the U.S. Congress and the state senate and added a new title to his resume—U.S. marshal.
His political connections and influence with Massachusetts voters got him the rank of major general of volunteers, beginning May 16, 1861, and command of a division. Placed in charge of the Department of the Shenandoah (July 25–August 17, 1861), he was driven from Winchester, Virginia, by Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson’s "foot cavalry" on May 25. The Southerners captured so many supplies at Winchester that they came up with their own nickname for "Bobbin Boy;" to them, he was "Commissary Banks."
He and Jackson met again at Cedar Mountain, Virginia, prior to the Second Battle of Bull Run. Banks came close to victory there, even routing Jackson’s renowned "Stonewall Brigade," but the arrival of Confederate major general A. P. Hill with the Light Division saved the day for the Rebels. Banks’ command sat out the Battle of Second Bull Run, guarding Bristoe Station. As Maj. Gen. John Pope’s army retreated from its thrashing outside Manassas, Pope ordered Banks to destroy the trains and supplies, resulting in the loss of 148 railroad cars and five locomotives.
Asked to raise volunteers from the New York–New England region, Banks displayed his true value to the Union cause: he secured 30,000 new fighting men.
Sent to New Orleans in December 1862 to replace Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler in command of that city, Banks besieged the Mississippi River town of Port Hudson, Louisiana. The defense of Port Hudson were well prepared, and some 6,500 Confederates held off his 30,000 troops for 48 days. The town surrendered after learning Vicksburg, up river, had fallen. Banks did make history with the siege; he had raised the Corps d’Afrique, a regiment of black troops, in Louisiana, and their attacks on Port Hudson marked the first use of black soldiers in a major battle during the war.
Between March and May of 1864, Banks embarked on the ill-fated Red River Campaign to capture Shreveport, Louisiana, where the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy had its headquarters, and to confiscate bales of cotton along the way. The campaign had been suggested and planned by the Union’s general-in-chief Henry Halleck, against the advice of both Banks and Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
Leading 20,000 mostly inexperienced troops from New Orleans, supplemented through the end of April by 15,000 on loan from Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and supported by riverine gunboats, Banks was thwarted time and again by significantly smaller Confederate forces. Blame for the failed campaign fell primarily on Banks, but he remained in the army until he mustered out on August 24, 1865. He then returned to the political career he loved, and where he was more successful.
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By Bruce J. Dinges