The Political Generals of the Union: Nathaniel Banks

This entry is part 8 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General Nathaniel BanksWhen Abraham Lincoln realized that he would have to prosecute a war against the Southern states he knew that he would need to gain the allegiance of the Democrat Party. He did not want the Northern war effort to be seen as simply as Republican Party-only. In order to gain the confidence of the Northern Democrats, he would need to appoint a number of them to generalships.

Among these so-called political generals can be found Nathaniel Banks, Benjamin Butler, Franz Siegal and Dan Sickles. Added to this was John Charles Fremont who was the first Republican candidate for President, running in the 1856 election.

Nathaniel Banks was a Democratic politician from Massachusetts. He had served in the state legislature from 1848 until 1856. Within two years he was elected Speaker of the Massachusetts House. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1855 and after a protracted contest was elected Speaker of the House. In 1857, he was elected Governor, a post that he served in until January 1861. By then Banks had moved from the Democrat Party to become a Republican.

Lincoln appointed Banks as the first major general of volunteers on May 16, 1861, giving him seniority over everyone who followed him. Banks may have been a good politician but he was not a good general. He was unschooled in the ways of strategy and tactics. Lincoln’s problem was that Banks could not be fired.

Over the course of his career he failed in a number of theaters. He was whipped by “Stonewall” Jackson in the Valley Campaign of 1862 and at Cedar Mountain in August 1862. At the latter, he was saved by the arrival of Union reinforcements that resulted in a standoff.

In the winter of 1862 he raised a force of 30,000 men from the Northeast who he led to New Orleans where he replaced Maj. Gen. Ben Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, doubted the wisdom of replacing Butler with Banks.

According to historian John D. Winters, “Welles’s opinion of the military abilities of both men was very low, but he did not question Butler’s skill as a ‘police magistrate’ in charge of civil affairs. Banks, he thought did not have ‘the energy, power or ability of Butler.’ He did have ‘some ready qualities for civil administration,’ but was less reckless and unscrupulous’ and probably would not be able to hold a tight enough rein on the people” once placed under Union control.”

Banks had mixed success in the Gulf. He was ordered to capture the vital Confederate base at Port Hudson, Louisiana on the Mississippi River. With the capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson the South would be split in two parts, cutting off supplies to their armies east of the river. Banks led an expedition of 12,000 men who attempted to storm the Confederate works on two occasions. Both were dismal failures with each of the two attacks resulting in more than 1,800 Union casualties. The Confederate garrison surrendered after Vicksburg fell.

In March 1864 at the urging of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, who was still General-in-Chief, Banks embarked on the Red River Campaign. Banks’s army was routed at the Battle of Mansfield by General Richard Taylor (son of former President Zachary Taylor) and retreated 20 miles (32 km) to make a stand the next day at the Battle of Pleasant Hill. Despite winning a tactical victory at Pleasant Hill, Banks continued the retreat to Alexandria, his force rejoined part of the Federal Inland Fleet.

After the campaign, just before General Sherman began his operations against Atlanta, Sherman said of the Red River campaign that it was “One damn blunder from beginning to end.” On April 22, 1864, Grant wired Chief of Staff Halleck asking for Banks’s removal. He was replaced by Edward Canby, who was promoted to major general.

President Lincoln ordered Banks to oversee elections held under the new constitution in September, and then ordered him to return to Washington to lobby Congress for acceptance of Louisiana’s constitution and elected Congressmen. Congress refused to seat Louisiana’s two Congressmen in early 1865.

After six months, Banks returned to Louisiana to resume his military command under Canby. However, he was politically trapped between the civilian government and Canby, and resigned from the army in May 1865 after only one month in New Orleans. He returned to Massachusetts in September 1865.



Civil War Tactics: Infantry

This entry is part 4 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Civil War TacticsThe American Civil War began with the assumption by both sides that after just a few battles the war would end with either the Confederacy collapsing or achieving their independence. No one could have envisioned a war that lasted four years and took more than 620,000 lives.

At the start of the war both armies were manned for the most part by untrained militia. Early battles were simply clashes between armed mobs. It was by pure luck that the Confederates actually won the First Battle of Manassas or Bull Run. Neither side was capable of overwhelming the other side.

After the initial phase of the war, the Union government appointed Major General George B. McClellan as commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, the main Union force responsible for the defense of Washington. After the consolidation of a number of Union military units, McClellan became the commander of the Army of the Potomac, the main Union Army in the Eastern Theater.

McClellan may have been timid on the battlefield but he was a genius when it came to logistics and training. He oversaw the training and equipping of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan’s army grew from 50,000 men in July 1861 to 168,000 by November and was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times.

He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists. Unfortunately, he was afraid to send his precious force into battle against the Confederates.

The tactics of early Civil War armies included maneuvering infantry units by brigades in wide battle lines. Both sides attempted to overwhelm their opponents with massed musket fire in the open field with little use of fortifications and emplacements. The most common deployment was a long “line of battle,” 2 ranks deep. More massed was the “column,” varying from 1 to 10 or more companies wide and from 8 to 20 or more ranks deep. Less compact than column or line was “open-order” deployment: a strung-out, irregular single line.

Early Civil War commanders rarely understood the effect of rifled musket fire on offensive infantry assaults. After devastating casualties at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Shiloh, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, both sides began to adapt to the new effects of firepower against infantry. Both the artillery and the cavalry were quicker to adapt their tactics to devastating firepower of new weaponry.

As the troops and their commanders became more experienced fortifications came into greater use by both sides. Most troops would quickly build light fortifications each night as a defensive measure. The Confederate defensive emplacements at Vicksburg, Port Hudson and Corinth, Mississippi were much more permanent and prevented quick assaults against these important Southern cities.

Sieges and the assault of fortified positions are probably the most complex and demanding of military operations. The foremost authority on these matters in the civil war was considered to be the French engineer, the Marquis de Vauban, who designed many European fortification systems, and organized many successful sieges of the seventeenth century. The Confederate earthworks of Port Hudson, and their use of artillery lunettes show his influence, and corresponding attacks on such systems would have benefited from his theories.

At both Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the Union forces initially attempted to rush the defensive fortifications. All of their attempts failed miserably with serious casualties. At both locations the Union attackers settled into methodical sieges.

The Siege of Vicksburg lasted from May 18, 1863 until July 4th when Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton surrendered his entire garrison of 29,495 men after 3,202 had been killed or wounded. In addition to his surrendered men, Pemberton turned over to Grant 172 cannons and 50,000 rifles. The loss of Vicksburg was a massive blow for the Confederacy.

The Siege of Port Hudson was similar to Vicksburg’s siege. It lasted from May 22 to July 9, 1863. After a number of unsuccessful and costly frontal assaults the Union attackers settled into a siege that lasted from June 15th to July 9th when the Confederate garrison of 6,500 surrendered after a loss of 1,000 killed or wounded. The Union attackers lost 5,000 killed or wounded plus an additional 5,000 men who died of disease. The surrender gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, severing communications and trade between the eastern and western states of the Confederacy.

Corinth, Mississippi, an important rail junction in northern Mississippi, was the scene of two battles. The first engagement was called the Siege of Corinth and lasted from April 29 to May 30, 1862 but the Confederates under Lt. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard withdrew before Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck’s massive 120,000 strong army could engage his 65,000-man force. Made cautious by the staggering losses at Shiloh, Halleck embarked on a tedious campaign of offensive entrenchment, fortifying after each advance, sometimes only advancing a mile or two each day.

The second engagement at Corinth took place on October 3–4, 1862. Confederate forces under Generals Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn, numbering about 22,000, attacked Union forces emplaced in rifle pits dug by the Confederate Army in the Spring. The Union forces, numbering about 23,000, were commanded Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans.

The Union forces were able to repulse a number of frontal assaults against their fixed defenses. Rosecrans’s army lost 2,520 (355 killed, 1,841 wounded, and 324 missing) at Corinth; Van Dorn’s losses were 4,233 (473 killed, 1,997 wounded, and 1,763 captured or missing).





The Siege of Port Hudson: Part One

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series The Port Hudson Campaign

The Siege of Port Hudson:

Part One

Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks and his Army of the Gulf arrived at Port Hudson late on May 22, 1863. Banks had four divisions under his command. Interestingly, his three separate forces came from different starting points and arrived simultaneously, by land and water from Alexandria, Barton Rouge and New Orleans. This reflected a high degree of administrative skill on the commanding general and his staff.

Unfortunately, this would be the last time the Army of the Gulf achieved such a high degree of coordination. Banks was unable to get his division and brigade-level officers to function as a team. During previous campaigns, Banks and his subordinate commanders had performed very well. Perhaps, this was too large a force for him to handle, with four divisions. Or the senior officers who were together for the first time, just did not mesh very well.

Modern Map of the Port Hudson-Baton Rouge AreaInterestingly, Banks’ four divisions in the Army of the Gulf were each commanded by West Point graduates while Banks was a so-called ‘political’ general. Brig. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel and Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover had come with Banks from Alexandria and had landed at Bayou Sara. They formed the right wing of the reunited army.

Maj. Gen. Christopher C. Augur‘s Division arrived from Baton Rouge. Brig. Gen.  Thomas W. Sherman‘s Division came directly from New Orleans. These two divisions formed the left wing of Bank’s army. With their arrival, Port Hudson was completely encircled.

With the arrival of all of his divisions, Nathaniel Banks had between 25,000 and 30,000 troops at Port Hudson. The precise number of Union troops has been in dispute since 1863. At this stage of the campaign, he had a better than 4-to-1 numerical advantage over the defenders.

Click map to enlarge. You will note that the modern city has spread to the east while the Civil War-era Port Hudson hugged the bluffs on the Mississippi River.

The overwhelming advantage was offset by the difficult terrain and the increasingly stout Confederate defensive fortifications. In addition, the lack of coordination among Banks and his subordinate officers also contributed to an unnecessarily extended siege.

Banks did have an excellent relationship with Rear Admiral David Farragut, the commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. Although he should have been out in the Gulf supervising his blockaders, Farragut had a particular interest in the reduction of Port Hudson. At the start of the siege, he hoisted his flag aboard the USS Monongahela,  barkentine–rigged screw sloop-of-war. Throughout the siege, Farragut’s warships, gunboats and mortar boats bombarded the Confederate positions from above and below Port Hudson.

Banks was hoping to capture Port Hudson quickly. There were a number of factors for his haste. The coming summer season would bring extreme heat and humidity. It was also the season for deadly diseases in the South. Enlistments in his nine-month regiments were scheduled to run out. At Confederate fortifications at Port Hudsonleast half of his army was made up of this type of unit.

Finally, he was concerned by the small size of the Union garrison that he had left in New Orleans. Brig. Gen. William Emory had been left with a handful of regiments to defend the vital port. The loss of New Orleans to the Confederates would be disasterous and Banks knew that leaving such a small force there was a calculated gamble.

Facing the Union besiegers was the Port Hudson defense commanded by Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner. Officially known as the Department of East Louisiana, Gardner had 5,765 men under his immediate command. In addition, he had about 1,300 cavalry under Col. John L. Logan, an aggressive commander who frequently raided the Union rear.

Gardner’s force was divided into three wings under the commands of Col. Isaiah G. W. Steedman, Brig. Gen. William Beall and Col. William R. Miles. On the left, facing north and northwest, Steedman commanded about 2,100 Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi troops. In the center, facing northeast and east, Beall had 2,300 men, mostly from Arkansas, although he had troops from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee. On the right and facing southeast, Miles had 1,150 Louisiana troops.

Of the Confederate commanders, Gardner and Beall were West Pointers while Steedman was a physician, Miles an attorney and Logan was a merchant. The Confederate artillery contingent at Port Hudson consisted of 14 heavy guns overlooking the river and 40 lighter guns on the landward defenses.

Port Hudson TrenchesAt a council of war on May 26th, Banks proposed a coordinated assault by his four divisions in order to overwhelm the Confederate defenders and end the siege before it began. Apparently not all of his subordinates agreed with this plan and a heated discussion ensued. Banks, as the commanding general, got his way and on the following day the attacks were to commence.

But when, where and how each division commander was to attack was up to them. Banks did not choose a specific time for his intended simultaneous assault however, ordering his commanders to “…commence at the earliest hour practicable.” It was an invitation to disaster with no coordination of among the divisions.