Today In Western History: January 30

January 30 —

Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks
Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks

On this day in 1816, Union General Nathaniel Banks is born in Waltham, Massachusetts. Banks was a political general.  This meant he had no military skills, but plenty of political connections, as an anti-slave Republican from Massachusetts, he had helped President Abraham Lincoln’s administra-tion maintain support in that region.

Banks was born in low surroundings to a cotton mill worker and he never attended college, but despite his humble beginnings, he studied law, languages, and oratory, and by the late 1830’s he had become a lawyer. He served in the state legislature, and was speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In 1853, Banks was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. From 1858 to 1861, he served as governor of his home state, where he was considered both a popular and very effective leader.

When the Civil War began, Banks was commissioned as a general despite his complete lack of military experience.  This was a fairly typical appointment during the Civil War because there just were not enough qualified men to fill the positions, and the Lincoln administration had to make appointments with what they had to work with, and with an eye to keeping what political support they had, as well as obtaining further political support for their goals.  Banks was given command of an army in the Shenandoah Valley during Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s campaign

Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, CSA
Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, CSA

there in 1862. He suffered two serious defeats to Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester, and his army lost so many supplies that the Confederates began calling him “Commissary Banks” in contempt. In August of that same year, Banks commanded a corps at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia. He once again found himself pitted against Jackson, and yet again lost to him. Banks was forced to retreat to Washington, D.C. where he was relieved of his command.

Banks was then sent down to New Orleans to command the Department of the Gulf. In 1863, he managed to capture Port Hudson, a key Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. His victory was difficult and came with a high price in casualties, but it was the general’s first victory of the war, and it was actually his only real victory. In 1864, Banks commanded the Red River Campaign in northern Louisiana, which turned also into a complete Union disaster and once more he was relieved of command and he would never command troops in the field again.  His next assignment was to oversee the reconstruction of Louisiana during the war, and documents prove he was just as inept at this.  He had used the state’s antebellum constitution to govern and all he did was remove any references to slavery, which did little to promote the rights of freed slaves. In fact, Banks actually forced many black “vagrants” back to work on the very plantations they had left behind.

After the war, Banks served two more stints in Congress and also spent time as a U.S. marshal. He was serving in Congress when he died in 1894 at age 78.


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