Nathaniel Prentice (or Prentiss) Banks (January 30, 1816 – September 1, 1894) was an American politician and soldier, and a Union general during the American Civil War.
A millworker by background, Banks was prominent in local debating societies, and his oratorical skills were noted by the Democratic Party. But his abolitionist views fitted him better for the nascent Republican Party, through which he became Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and Governor of Massachusetts.
At the outbreak of the civil war, Lincoln appointed Banks as one of the first ‘political’ major generals, over the heads of West Point regulars, who initially resented him, but came to acknowledge his influence on the administration of the war. After suffering an inglorious defeat in the Shenandoah at the hands of the newly famous ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Banks replaced Benjamin Butler at New Orleans as commander of the Department of the Gulf, charged with liberating the Mississippi. But he failed to reinforce Grant at Vicksburg, and only took the surrender of Port Hudson after Vicksburg had fallen. He was then put in charge of the Red River campaign, a doomed attempt to occupy eastern Texas. Banks had no faith in this strategy, but the outgoing General-in-Chief, Henry Halleck, is believed to have told Grant that it was Banks’ idea, in order to dodge responsibility for this expensive failure, for which Banks was removed from command.
After the war, Banks returned to the Massachusetts political scene, where he influenced the Alaska Purchase legislation and supported women's suffrage.
Nathaniel Prentiss Banks was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, on January 30, 1816. Nicknamed "the Bobbin Boy of Massachusetts" because he had gone to work at an early age in a cotton mill which his father superintended, Banks had little formal education. At the age of twenty-three he was admitted to the bar, but failed seven times to become a member of the Massachusetts legislature before winning a seat. He was speaker of the Massachusetts house, presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1853, and the same year was elected to Congress—the first of ten terms under five different party affiliations. Elected Speaker of the House of Representatives after 133 ballots in 1856, Banks showed moderation in deciding among factions during the bitter slavery debates. In 1858 he was elected governor of Massachusetts, serving until January, 1861, when Lincoln appointed him a major general of volunteers after Banks proffered his services. Many West Point officers could not be made to understand that, however substandard Banks's qualifications were for the job of a field commander, he contributed immeasurably in recruits, morale, money, and propaganda to the Federal cause. He was expelled from the Shenandoah with the loss of 30 per cent of his force during Stonewall Jackson's celebrated Valley campaign and, in August, 1862, was again defeated by Jackson at Cedar Mountain. Banks was responsible for costly assaults at Port Hudson, which was compelled to surrender anyway after the capitulation of Vicksburg, and was the commander, if not the author, of the ill-fated Red River campaign of 1864. After the evacuation of Alexandria during the retreat of the expedition, Banks was superseded by General E. R. S. Canby. Having received the thanks of Congress for "the skill, courage, and endurance which compelled the surrender of Port Hudson," General Banks was mustered out of military service in August, 1865, and was almost immediately elected to Congress—his first of six terms, five as a Republican and one as a Democrat, in the postwar years. During the same period he was elected once to the Massachusetts senate and served nine years as United States marshal for the state. Before the end of his last term in the House of Representatives he retired to his home in Waltham where he died on September 1, 1894, and was buried in Grove Hill Cemetery.
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