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  Name:  Nathaniel Prentice Banks
  Born:  January 30, 1816
  Died:  September 1, 1894

  Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Banks, Nathaniel Prentice (January 30, 1816 – September 1, 1894)
Nathaniel Banks was a leading American politician before and after the Civil War, serving in Congress (including one term as speaker) and as governor of Massachusetts.  However, his performance as a Union general in the field during the Civil War was dismal.
Nathaniel Prentice Banks was born on January 30, 1816, in Waltham, Massachusetts, to Rebecca Greenwood Banks and Nathaniel Prentice Banks, foreman of a textile mill.  Until the age of 14, he attended a one–room school run by his father’s company, and then began working at the mill as a “bobbin boy” (which later became a political nickname).  He also assisted his father in making furniture, and after a few years apprenticed with a mechanic.  He read widely, attended lectures in Boston given by public figures such as Daniel Webster, participated in a drama club, organized a dancing school, and joined a temperance society.
Banks entered politics during the campaign of 1840 by speaking locally for the Democratic Party and assuming editorship of the Lowell Democrat.  When the newspaper folded the next year, he established the Middlesex Reporter in Waltham, but that closed in 1842.  The next year, he was introduced by an uncle to attorney Robert Rantoul who became his political mentor and secured him a patronage position at the Boston Custom House.  In 1847, Banks married Mary Theodosia Palmer; the couple later had four children. 
Banks ran unsuccessfully for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1844 and 1847 before winning the first of four consecutive one–year terms in 1848 (serving 1849–1852).  On federal issues, Banks supported low tariffs and territorial expansion, and considered national unity more important than slavery abolition.  However, while remaining publicly cautious on the slavery question, he developed close ties with Free Soilers and was elected by a Democratic–Free Soil coalition as speaker of the Massachusetts House for the 1851 and 1852 sessions.  He passed the state bar, but soon abandoned an unsuccessful law practice in Boston.  Another foray into editing also ended with the failure of the publication, the Rumford Journal (1851–1852).
In 1852, Banks was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives by a slim margin, with Free Soil support but some opposition from his own party.  Before taking his seat, he served in early 1853 as a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention.  In Congress, he condemned the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened those territories to slavery, and broke with the presidential administration of Democrat Franklin Pierce.  He joined the American Party (“Know Nothings”) and was reelected to Congress in 1854 by a coalition of the Know–Nothings, Free Soil Whigs, and other Democrats opposed to the Kansas–Nebraska Act.  In December 1855, he was elected speaker of the U.S. House by three votes on the 133rd ballot (only after a plurality rule replaced the necessity of gaining a majority).  As speaker, he distributed committee positions proportionally among the parties and impressed fellow congressmen with his aptitude for the position.
In 1856, Banks joined the new Republican Party, supporting its unsuccessful presidential nominee, John C. Fremont, and winning reelection to Congress as a Republican.  In 1857, he was elected to the first of three consecutive one–year terms as governor of Massachusetts (serving January 1858 – January 1861).  He supported public education, penal reform, a reduction of the waiting period for naturalized citizens before they could vote from 14 years to two, and cuts in expenditures during the economic depression that followed the financial panic of 1857.  He vetoed a bill allowing black men to serve in the state militia.  In 1860, he received a few votes for the Republican vice presidential nomination, which went to Hannibal Hamlin of Maine.  In early 1861, Banks relocated his family to Chicago, where he joined the Illinois Central Railroad as resident director in charge of promoting land sales.
A few weeks after the Civil War began in mid–April 1861, Banks, who had no military experience, received a political appointment as major general of Union volunteers and was assigned to Annapolis, Maryland, first as division commander (May 16 – June 11) and then as department commander (June 11 – July 19).  Over the next year, he was shifted back and forth between the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where he was department commander (July 25 – August 17), and the Potomac, where he was a division commander of the Military District of the Potomac (August 17 – October 3) and of the Army of the Potomac (October 3, 1861 – March 13, 1862) before being promoted to commander of the 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac (March 13 – April 4, 1862).
Banks returned as commander of the Department of the Shenandoah (April 4 – June 26, 1862), but was defeated by Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at Winchester (May 25).  By early June, Jackson had secured the Shenandoah Valley for the Confederates and captured such a large amount of supplies left by the fleeing Union troops that the Confederates nicknamed the Union commander “Commissary Banks.”  After that military failure, he was subordinated to Union General John Pope.  As commander of the Army of Virginia’s 2nd Corps (June 26 – September 4, 1862), Banks was again defeated by Jackson at Cedar Mountain (August 9), where the Union suffered heavy casualties, and also did not perform well when the Union lost at Second Bull Run (Manassas).  His decisions at Cedar Mountain were investigated by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
Banks briefly commanded the Military District of Washington, D. C., (September 7 – October 27, 1862), before President Lincoln selected him to replace Union General Benjamin Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf (December 17, 1862 – September 23, 1864).  Headquartered in Union–occupied New Orleans, Banks released political prisoners, eased trade restrictions, introduced a system of sharecropping between former slaves and masters, and implemented other changes aimed at appeasing residents.  He also organized several regiments of black Union soldiers, the Corps d’Afrique, and, at the behest of President Lincoln but against his own inclination, pushed (unsuccessfully) for the inclusion of black manhood suffrage in the new state constitution.
Militarily, Banks continued to perform poorly.  Concentrating on political matters in his first six months as commander of the Department of the Gulf, his attack on Port Hudson was delayed and uncoordinated with the plans of General Ulysses S. Grant at Vickburg.  Assaults on May 27 and June 14, 1863, resulted in large numbers of Union casualties, but Port Hudson surrendered on July 9 after notification that Vicksburg had fallen to Grant.  Banks received the official Thanks of Congress for Port Hudson, although credit was really due to Grant.  After Banks failed to capture Shreveport, Louisiana, in the Red River Campaign (March–May 1864), President Lincoln relieved him of field command and returned him to Washington, D. C., to lobby for the president’s Reconstruction program.  Banks had to appear before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to defend his role in the Red River Campaign.  Following Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Banks again served briefly as commander of the Department of the Gulf (April 22 – June 3, 1865) before being mustered out of the U. S. Army on August 24, 1865.
In late 1865, Banks was elected as a Republican from Massachusetts to fill a vacant seat in Congress.  He was a moderate on Reconstruction and initially resisted the movement to impeach President Andrew Johnson before voting in favor of it in February 1868.  As chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (1865–1873), Banks criticized the British for refitting Confederate ships during the Civil War (the “Alabama claims”), voted for the purchase of Alaska from Russia, but failed to gain passage of a resolution allowing the president to establish Haiti and Santo Domingo (today, the Dominican Republic) as U.S. protectorates.
In July 1872, upset with President Ulysses S. Grant over patronage and administration scandals, Banks announced his support of challenger Horace Greeley, the presidential nominee of the Liberal Republican and Democratic Parties.  The endorsement cost Banks his congressional seat that fall, but the next year he was elected as an independent to the Massachusetts Senate, where he supported labor reform and women’s suffrage.  In 1874, running as an independent, he was returned to Congress, and two years later won reelection as a Republican.  He served as U.S. marshal of Boston from 1878 until resigning in 1888 while under investigation for the misuse of funds.  He was reelected to Congress in 1888, although he was showing signs of dementia.  After failing to win renomination in 1890, he retired from public service.  Nathaniel Banks died in his hometown, Waltham, Massachusetts, on September 1, 1894.
Sources consulted:
James G. Hollandsworth, Pretense of Glory:  The Life of General Nathaniel P. Banks
(LSU Press, 1998); Raymond H. Banks, The King of Louisiana,1862–1865,  and Other Government Work
(privately published, 2005; available online at:;
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress  (online); Phyllis F. Field, “Banks, Nathaniel Prentiss [sic],”
American National Biography (online); and, Stewart Sifakis, “Nathaniel Prentiss [sic] Banks,”
Who Was Who in the Civil War, “Home of the American Civil War” (online).

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