Nathaniel Prentice Banks was born in Waltham, Massachusetts on January 30, 1816. He was the first of nine children of Nathaniel P. Banks and Rebecca Greenwood. Banks attended a common school in Massachusetts until the age of fourteen when he began working as a bobbin boy in the textile mill that his father managed. He also apprenticed as a mechanic. While working as a mechanic, Banks studied law and joined the Massachusetts bar in 1839, at twenty-three years of age.
One year later, Banks became interested in politics and supported local Democrats as editor of the Lowell Democrat (1840). When that newspaper ceased publication in 1841, Banks established the Middlesex Reporter, which failed one year later.
In 1844, Banks tossed his own hat into the political ring, unsuccessfully running for a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
On April 11, 1847, Banks married Mary Theodosia Palmer, who worked in a Waltham cotton mill. Their marriage produced four children.
The year 1847 also marked Banks’s second unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The next year, however, voters elected him as a member of the Free Soil Party, to the first of four one-year terms in the state legislature. In 1851 and 1852, he was the Speaker of the House. Besides his legislative duties, Banks found time to edit another newspaper, the Rumford Journal, from 1851 to 1852. Banks also served as president of the state constitutional convention of 1853.
Banks first appeared on the national political stage in 1853, after voters of the Massachusetts Seventh Congressional District elected him to the Thirty-third Congress (1853–1855) as a member of the Democratic Party. Two years later, voters elected Banks to the Thirty-fourth Congress (1855–1857) as a member of the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party. Banks served as Speaker of the House during his second term. In 1856, voters elected Banks to a third consecutive Congressional term, this time as a Republican.
Banks resigned his seat in the Thirty-fifth Congress on December 24, 1857, after being elected Governor of Massachusetts. Banks served one term as governor, from January 1858 until January 1861. In 1860, Banks made an unsuccessful bid to become the Republican presidential candidate, losing out to Abraham Lincoln. At the expiration of his gubernatorial term, Banks moved his family to Chicago, where he succeeded George B. McClellan as director of the Illinois Central Railway.
Political Major General
After the American Civil War began, President Lincoln appointed Banks as a major general in the volunteer army on May 16, 1861. Although Banks had no military training, Lincoln believed that Bank’s political notoriety would generate support for the war. Banks’ first assignment was commanding the Department of Annapolis, where he played a prominent role in suppressing Confederate sympathizers and keeping Maryland in the Union.
Department of the Shenandoah Commander
In July 1861, officials reassigned Banks and placed him in command of the Department of the Shenandoah. When Major General George McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign in March 1862, authorities charged Banks with preventing Major General Stonewall Jackson‘s 17,000 Confederate soldiers from reinforcing the Southern defenses at Richmond, Virginia.
First Battle of Kernstown
Banks’ first encounter with Jackson at the First Battle of Kernstown, on March 23, 1862, was a tactical victory for his Union forces. Despite the victory, President Lincoln recalled Banks’s force up the valley, fearing that McClellan’s absence had left Washington, DC, vulnerable to a Confederate attack. Lincoln’s decision eliminated any possibility of Banks eventually aiding McClellan’s assault on Richmond.
First Battle of Winchester
Banks’s next encounter with Jackson was at the First Battle of Winchester on May 25, 1862. There, Jackson inflicted a sound beating on the Federals, forcing Banks to withdraw north across the Potomac River.
Battle of Cedar Mountain
The final encounter between the two generals was at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, on August 9, 1862. There, Banks came close to inflicting a critical defeat on Jackson, but a late-day charge by Major General A. P. Hill repulsed a Union assault and sent the Yankees fleeing. Banks lost so many supplies during his encounters that Confederate soldiers began referring to him as “Commissary Banks.”
After the defeat at Cedar Mountain, Banks assumed command of the Military District of Washington, D.C. During his brief stint of two months there, Banks oversaw improvements to the capital’s defensive network of forts and trenches.
Department of the Gulf Commander
In December 1862, Banks transferred to New Orleans with 30,000 soldiers whom he helped recruit from the New England area. There, he replaced fellow Massachusetts resident and political general Benjamin F. Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf. During his first few months in command, Banks focused on easing tensions in New Orleans attributed to Butler’s harsh occupation policies.
In May 1863, Banks led an expeditionary force up the Mississippi River past Baton Rouge to subdue the river town of Port Hudson. After reducing Port Hudson, Banks was to proceed upriver and assist Major General Ulysses S. Grant in capturing the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, but events did not go as planned. Rebels defenders repulsed attacks on May 27 and June 14, 1863, resulting in high Union casualties. Among the Federal troops taking part in the assaults were the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard, the first all-black units to fight in the Civil War. Unable to overpower the defenders of Port Hudson, Banks settled on investing the town. Because of this decision, Banks’ instructions to assist Grant proved fruitless. The defenders at Port Hudson did not submit until July 9, after they received word that Vicksburg had surrendered on July 4. Despite his failure to support Grant, Banks received an official “Thanks of Congress” for his part in securing control of the Mississippi River.
While Banks and Grant were establishing Union domination of the Mississippi River, France was installing a puppet regime in Mexico, ruled by Emperor Maximilian I. Fearing that the new Mexican monarch might aid Texas and the Confederacy, Union officials ordered Banks to establish a military presence in Texas. In the autumn of 1863, Banks led two combined Army-Navy expeditions into Texas. The first resulted in a humiliating Union defeat, as a Confederate garrison of thirty-six infantrymen repulsed an amphibious assault by 5,000 Federals at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863. Banks returned to Texas two months later and landed an invasion force near the mouth of the Rio Grande on November 2, 1863. He quickly occupied Brownsville, Texas, and surrounding coastal regions, discouraging French support of the Confederacy.
Red River Campaign
Banks’ success in November fueled the aspirations of President Lincoln and Army Chief-of-Staff Henry W. Halleck to subjugate Texas. Over the objections of Ulysses S. Grant and Banks, Halleck ordered Banks to mount an offensive up the Red River to gain control of northwestern Louisiana and to secure a passageway to invade eastern Texas. The three-pronged attack, using a combined army-navy force, started on March 12, 1864. Two months later, Banks limped back to New Orleans, after failing to reach Shreveport, suffering high casualties, and leaving the Trans-Mississippi area in Confederate hands. The Red River Campaign ruined Banks’ military career.
Shortly after Banks returned to southern Louisiana, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders, No. 192, on May 7, 1864. The order placed the Department of the Gulf under the dominion of the newly created Division of West Mississippi, commanded by Major General Edward Canby. Reduced to an administrative role, Banks would never again command troops in the field.
Return to the East
Banks remained on as commander of the Department of the Gulf until September 23, 1864, when Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, replaced him. Banks returned to the East, where he lobbied for Abraham Lincoln’s reconstruction plans for Louisiana, and for the President’s reelection. During his stay, Banks testified before the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War concerning his role in the Red River fiasco, and irregularities regarding the cotton trade in the Department of the Gulf.
Return to Louisiana
After Radical elements of the Republican Congress scuttled Lincoln’s efforts to re-admit Louisiana to the Union, the President, on March 15, 1864, ordered Banks to return to Louisiana. By April 21, Banks was back in New Orleans, and on the next day, he resumed command of the Department of the Gulf. Banks briefly stayed on until June 3, 1865, by which time the war was over.
On August 24, 1865, Banks mustered out of the volunteer army and resumed his political career. Later that year, the voters of Massachusetts’s Sixth Congressional district elected him to fill a vacant seat in the Thirty-ninth Congress. Subsequently, they re-elected him as a Republican to the Fortieth, Forty-first, and Forty-second Congresses, serving until March 3, 1873. During much of that time, he was Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and chair of the Republican Congressional Caucus.
A break with President Grant prompted Banks to join the short-lived Liberal Republican Party and endorse Horace Greeley in the presidential election of 1872. Without the support of the president and mainstream Republicans, Banks lost his seat in the House that year. The next year, voters elected him as an independent to the Massachusetts Senate.
In 1874, voters from Massachusetts’s Fifth Congressional District elected Banks to represent them in the Forty-fourth Congress (1875–1877) as an independent candidate. Two years later, they re-elected him to the Forty-fifth Congress (1877–1879) as a Republican.
When Banks did not secure a nomination in 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him as a U.S. Marshal on March 11, 1879. Banks served in that capacity until April 23, 1888. That fall, voters from Massachusetts’s Fifth Congressional District elected Banks to represent them in Congress once again. Banks served his tenth and final term in the Fifty-first Congress from 1889 to 1891.
During Banks’s last term in Congress, his mental capacities deteriorated, probably because of Alzheimer’s disease. Unable to secure a nomination, in 1890, Banks retired from politics and returned to Waltham. Banks died in his home on September 1, 1894. He was buried at Grove Hill Cemetery in his native city.