Banks, Nathaniel P.

Born: 1816-01-30 Waltham, Massachusetts

Died: 1894-09-01 Waltham, Massachusetts

Nathaniel P. Banks, politician and Civil War general, initially followed his father in manufacturing but ultimately studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1839. Banks was recruited into Democratic Party politics, giving speeches in 1840 and editing party weeklies between 1840 and 1842. He held a patronage job at the Boston Custom House between 1843 and 1849 and unsuccessfully ran for the state legislature in 1844 and 1847. In the latter year, he married Mary Palmer, with whom he had four children.

In the late 1840s, Banks exercised flexibility on political positions in order to attract support beyond his fellow Democrats, who were in the minority in Massachusetts. Although an expansionist, he supported the Wilmot Proviso until the national Democratic party rejected it, and ultimately earned enough support from the Free Soil Party to finally win election to the Massachusetts General Court in 1848, remaining in office for three terms and serving as speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1851. Banks then won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and served from 1853 until 1857. He opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which placed him too much in opposition to his own party and so he joined the American Party for his second term, when he also served as speaker of the House. Banks gradually shifted toward the Republican Party, declining an offer of the American Party’s presidential nomination in 1856, and becoming a Republican outright for his third term in Congress. He resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of 1857 in order to become governor of Massachusetts, an office he held until 1859.

In 1861, Banks relocated to Chicago to serve as director of the Illinois Central Railroad. Following the commencement of hostilities in the Civil War, Banks volunteered his services to Abraham Lincoln, who appointed him a major general of volunteers effective May 16, 1861. Banks’ lack of military experience led to a poor performance against Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during the Shenandoah Campaign, and at the end of 1862 Lincoln reassigned him to Louisiana, where he replaced Benjamin F. Butler as commander of Union forces in occupied New Orleans. His orders were, in part, to pacify local Confederates, but his attempts to steer a more moderate course on race and politics than his predecessor ultimately pleased few. The end result was a revised state constitution that outlawed slavery but failed to enfranchise African Americans and ultimately led to Louisiana being a battleground during Reconstruction.

While in Louisiana, Banks was also under orders to help re-open the Mississippi River. In pursuing this goal, he made poorly-planned attacks on the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson, Louisiana, in May and June of 1863; the garrison ultimately surrendered in July, following news of Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg. Banks’ involvement in the 1864 Red River campaign was also disastrous and resulted in his removal as commander in Louisiana and effectively ended his military career.

Phyllis F. Field, “Banks, Nathaniel Prentiss,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2:113-16; U.S. Census Office, Seventh Census of the United States (1850), Waltham, Middlesex County, MA, 290; U.S. Census Office, Eighth Census of the United States (1860), Waltham, Middlesex County, MA, 139; Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1887), 11:489, 537, 538; Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1903), 1:189; Boston Daily Advertiser (MA), 1 September 1894, 1:4-5; 3 September 1894, 1:5-6; Gravestone, Grove Hill Cemetery, Waltham, MA.