Nathaniel Prentiss Banks
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, congressman, governor of Massachusetts, and Union general, was born on January 30, 1816, in Waltham, Massachusetts, to Nathaniel P. and Rebecca (Greenwood) Banks. Working in the cotton mill where his father was superintendent later earned him the sobriquet "Bobbin Boy of Massachusetts." He married Mary Theodosia Palmer in 1847 and was a member of the Massachusetts House from 1849 until 1852; he was speaker for two years. Banks was elected as a coalition Democrat to the Thirty-third Congress in 1853 and as a candidate of the American (Know-Nothing) party to the Thirty-fourth Congress, which he served as speaker. He was elected as a Republican to the Thirty-fifth Congress and served from 1853 until he resigned in 1857 to become governor.|
After his service as governor of Massachusetts from 1858 to 1861, Banks was commissioned major general of volunteers, on May 16, 1861 - as a political appointee. His field career was rather dismal but his appointment served its purpose in rallying support for the war effort. With no prior military experience, he was in divisional and departmental command near Washington early in the war. Banks' heavy mustache and well-groomed appearance complemented his tall, thin frame. It was said that he had the air of one used to command. Several Confederate prisoners of war, upon seeing him, commented they "never saw a more faultless-looking soldier:' Unfortunately for Banks, he also had the qualities of many political generals. He had courage, but was short on talent and experience. He was a model soldier except in the fields of intuition and training, but Lincoln sent him into the Shenandoah Valley anyway. With 38,000 men, Banks committed himself to driving Jackson from the valley in the hopes of linking up with McClellan and his coming advance on Richmond and the Confederate seat of government. But he was routed by Stonewall Jackson and due to his tremendous loss of supplies was dubbed "Commissary Banks" by the Confederates. After setbacks against the Southerners in Virginia in 1862, he journeyed to New Orleans and succeeded Benjamin F. Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf. Acting in concert with Ulysses S. Grant's campaign to open the Mississippi River, Banks attempted to storm Confederate defenses at Port Hudson in May and June 1863 and received the surrender of the city on July 9. For obvious political reasons, he received an official "Thanks of Congress" for his Port Hudson campaign, then at the government's direction prepared to move against Texas in an attempt to influence the French presence in Mexico, to secure stores of cotton, and to restore a Unionist government to the state.
Banks planned a quick thrust at the mouth of the Sabine River, then an overland move upon Houston and Galveston. The invasion resulted in a Union disaster at the battle of Sabine Pass. Six weeks later Banks left New Orleans with twenty-three ships and landed an invasion force at Brazos Santiago, near the mouth of the Rio Grande, on November 2, 1863. Union troops soon occupied nearby Brownsville, Texas, and began to drive northward along the coast and up the Rio Grande to shut off the trade coming through "the Confederacy's back door."
Banks returned to New Orleans just one month after the landing at Brazos Santiago, pressed by his superiors to invade East Texas by way of the Red River. The Red River campaign ended in a Union failure and was Banks's last active command. He was honorably discharged from military service on August 24, 1865, and subsequently entered the House of Representatives. During his last years he served in Congress, as a member of the Massachusetts Senate, and as United States marshal. Congress awarded him a $1,200 annual pension. With his health broken during his last term in Congress, he returned to Waltham, where he died on September 1, 1894, survived by a son and two daughters.
Jubal Early once remarked to D.H. Hill that Union General “Commissary” Banks overestimated the numbers of Southern troops because he saw them through a magnifying glass whenever Stonewall Jackson was about.
As panic-stricken Union troops fled Winchester, Virginia, ahead of advancing troops of Stonewall Jackson on 25 May 1862, General Nathaniel Banks attempted to stop them and restore order. To a mob of running soldiers, Banks shouted, "My God, don't you love your country?" "Yes," came a reply from an unknown soldier, "and I'm trying to get back to it as fast as I can !"
Taken from SIDELIGHTS AND LIGHTER SIDES OF THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES: A Feast of History in Small Bites Cooked Up by Ralph Green, Past Commander-in-Chief Sons of Confederate Veterans. Used with permission.