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02/27/14

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.