Nathaniel Banks, 'Bobbin Boy' of Massachusetts

By Dr. Terry L. JONES
Special to The Journal

On December 14, 1862, the steamer North Star docked at New Orleans. Onboard was Nathaniel P. Banks, one of many prominent politicians President Lincoln appointed as generals to win support for the war effort from diverse Northern factions. Banks had come to the Crescent City to replace Benjamin F. Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf. Butler's heavy-handed rule, and in particular his notorious "Woman's Order," had turned foreign diplomats and even the city's loyalists against the Union. Lincoln hoped the politically astute Banks could win back their support.

Nathaniel P. Banks (1816-1894) was a self-made man who became known as the "Bobbin Boy of Massachusetts" because he began working in the state's textile industry at a young age. He often bragged to have graduated "from a college with a water-wheel in the basement." Although Banks had little formal education, he became a successful lawyer and was elected to the state legislature, where he served as the speaker of the house before being elected to Congress. A moderate on the slavery issue, Banks was known for changing his positions according to the political wind and was affiliated with five different parties during his career.

Banks was the consummate politician. An acquaintance claimed he was "not a warm-hearted person, and was never known to go out of his way an inch to confer a favor on a friend or supporter, unless another and a greater favor was expected at a future period." Although slightly shorter than average, Banks cut an impressive figure, but he was described as being arrogant and a "pretentious humbug." After switching from the Democrats to the Republicans, he was elected Speaker of the House in 1856 on the 133rd ballot. Banks was elected governor of Massachusetts the following year and was reelected twice, but he resigned his post in January 1861 to become director of the Illinois Central Railroad.

When the Civil War began, Lincoln appointed Banks a major general of volunteers because he needed Banks's political support. Although he had no military experience, Banks looked like a successful general. One newspaper reporter wrote he was "by all odds the most impressive man, in countenance, language and demeanor, whom I have seen since the war commenced." But looks were deceiving. A subordinate captured the general's essence when he declared Banks "means well, but I fear that he lacks a little either of education or confidence to push things through."

Banks was given command of the Department of the Shenandoah, but Stonewall Jackson chased him out of the area in his famous Valley Campaign. Adding insult to injury, the Confederates nicknamed Banks "Commissary Banks" because they captured so many supplies from him. The defeat did little damage to Banks's reputation, however, because many believed he had not been supported properly and because he did not complain. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote "on this occasion as at all other times Gen. Banks has obeyed the orders from the War Department without one selfish complaint and was the only General of his rank of whom it could be said."

After arriving in Louisiana, Banks was victorious in the Bayou Teche and Port Hudson campaigns, although his leadership and tactical abilities were uninspiring. In the fall of 1863, he launched two expeditions against the Texas Gulf Coast and managed to secure a toe-hold near the mouth of the Rio Grande. Although nothing in these campaigns indicated Banks had much military ability, the administration put him in charge of the 1864 Red River Campaign to capture Shreveport. Banks completely botched the operation and was defeated by a much smaller Confederate army. Banks's soldiers became disgusted with his leadership, particularly after he abandoned his dead and wounded to the enemy. One man declared, "The sooner Banks goes home, the better will it be for the service." Superior officers tended to agree and essentially ended Banks's career by removing him from command in September 1864. Banks resigned from the army about a year later, resumed his political career in Massachusetts, and went on to serve twelve years in Congress.

Although not a brilliant general, Banks was a capable politician, and he worked diligently to implement Lincoln's Reconstruction plan in Louisiana. He soothed hurt feelings among Unionists caused by Butler's harsh policies, enrolled voters, held new elections, and helped draw up a new state constitution that abolished slavery. Banks's political work was much more effective and had a longer-lasting impact than any of his military achievements-and that was probably more important to Abraham Lincoln than winning battles.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.