The National Archives at Boston

Nathaniel Prentice Banks

Born January 30, 1816 - Died September 1, 1894

Sketch of the Birth Home of Nathaniel P. Banks
Sketch of the home where Nathaniel P. Banks was born in 1816. The home was located on River Street in Waltham and was owned by the Boston
Manufacturing Company where Nathaniel's mother and father worked. The sketch was done for a local newspaper in the early 1900's and has since been torn down.

Early Life (Waltham)

Nathaniel Prentice Banks was born on January 30, 1816 in the town of Waltham, Massachusetts, ten miles west of Boston. He was the first child of Nathaniel P. Banks Sr. and Rebecca Greenwood Banks. Because his family was poor, he began work at a local cotton factory at an early age. Subsequently, Banks apprenticed as a mechanic for the company, edited several weekly local newspapers, studied law and was admitted to the bar at the age of 23. Banks married Mary Theodosia Palmer, an ex-factory employee in Providence, Rhode Island on April 11, 1847.

During Banks tenure at the cotton factory, he began a debating society and a factory newspaper. His energy and his ability as a public speaker soon won him distinction. His melodious voice and distinctive style of delivery made him a commanding presence before an audience. In 1848, Banks was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives from Waltham.

Photo of Banks as a young man
Photograph of Nathaniel P. Banks as he appeared in the early 1850's. Photo courtesy of the Waltham Historical Society.

Banks began his political career as a member of the Free Soil Party. He served as a Free Soiler in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1849 to 1853. The Free Soil Party was a breakaway faction of the Democratic Party which opposed the expansion of slavery into new territories in the West. The Free Soilers were against the expansion of slavery but not the idea of slavery, their goal was to gain the land in the west and keep the land free of slaves. Because of Bank's passion and commitment to the issues which he worked on as a member of the Massachusetts House, he was elected speaker in 1851 and 1852 by fellow members.

In 1853, Banks was chosen as the President of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention which met to make changes to the Massachusetts State Constitution. Also in 1853, Banks was elected to the United States House of Representatives as a coalition candidate of the Democratic Party and Free Soil Party. Following the collapse of the Free Soil Party in 1853, Banks joined the Know-Nothing Party and was reelected to Congress in 1854. The Know-Nothing party was a nativist political movement which grew as a popular reaction to fears that the country was being overwhelmed by immigrants whom they regarded as hostile to the country. Banks had joined the Know-Nothing's anti-slavery wing following the demise of the Free-Soil movement but soon tired of their more unseemly constituency. Most of the Anti slavery members of the Know-Nothing Party would join the nascent Republican Party in 1855, including Banks.

Photograph of Nathaniel P. Banks 1856 Photograph of Nathaniel P. Banks as he appeared as the first elected Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives. Photo courtesy The National Archives and Records Administration Washington DC

At the opening of the Thirty-Fourth Congress, most members who were opposed to slavery united behind Banks as their candidate for Speaker of the House. After one of the longest and most bitter elections for the speakership, lasting from December 13, 1855 to February 2, 1856, Nathaniel P. Banks was chosen on the 133rd ballot. Banks election as Speaker has been called the first national victory of the Republican Party.

Re-elected in 1856 as a Republican, he resigned his seat in December 1857 after being elected Governor of Massachusetts, where he would serve from 1858 until 1860. Banks would make a serious attempt to gain the Republican presidential in 1860, but discord within the Republican Party in Massachusetts, a resident in a "safe" Republican state, and his Know-Nothing past doomed his chances. He would lose the nomination to the eventual nominee Abraham Lincoln. Following his loss to Lincoln at the nomination convention, Banks accepted a job as resident director of the Illinois Central Railroad in Chicago, Illinois, succeeding future Union General George B. McClellan.

1860 United States Federal Census featuring Nathaniel P. Banks and family. By 1860 each member of the household is listed individually. Nathaniel lists his occupation in 1860 as Governor of Massachusetts. M0653 RG 029 Eighth Census of the United States, 1860. National Archives, Waltham.

Top of Page

The Civil War

With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, President Lincoln considered Banks for a cabinet position and eventually chose him as one of the first Major Generals of volunteers, appointing him on May 16, 1861. Banks enthusiastically joined the Union War effort although he lacked both military training and experience. Banks was one of the first political generals appointed by President Lincoln, who used these appointments as a way to get the support of more moderate Democrats for the war and his administration. General Banks was initially resented by many of the generals who had graduated from the United States Military Academy because his appointment was strictly for political reasons but Banks brought political benefits which the Lincoln Administration desperately needed in 1861. General Banks would use his political connections throughout Massachusetts to help attract recruits and money for the Union cause.

First Command

Major General Banks first command was at Annapolis, Maryland, suppressing support for the Confederacy in a slave holding state that was in jeopardy of seceding. General Banks was instrumental in helping to keep Maryland in the Union column at the beginning of the Civil War.

Photo of General Nathaniel P. Banks and Family
Portrait of General Nathaniel P. Banks and family taken in 1862. Photo courtesy of the Waltham Historical Society.

The Shenandoah Valley Campaign

When Union Major General George B. McClellan entered upon his Peninsula Campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond in the spring of 1862, the important duty of keeping the Confederate forces of General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia from reinforcing the defenses of Richmond fell to the two divisions commanded by General Banks. When Banks Divisions reached the southern end of the valley, President Lincoln recalled them to Strasburg, Virginia at the Northern end because of his fears that Washington had been left open to attack. General Jackson then marched his troops down the adjacent Luray Valley, driving Banks's troops from Winchester, Virginia on May 25, and North to the Potomac River. General Jackson's campaign of maneuver and quick strikes against superior forces-under General Banks and other Union Generals- humiliated the North and drove Union forces out of the Shenandoah Valley until 1864. With the success of his Valley Campaign, Stonewall Jackson became the most celebrated soldier in the Confederacy (until he was eventually eclipsed by Lee), and his victories lifted the morale of the Confederate public.

On August 9, 1862, General Banks would again encounter Jackson and his forces at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Culpeper County, Virginia. Banks initial attacks gained an early advantage, but Confederate reenforcments under the command of General A. P. Hill counterattacked and repulsed Banks early advantage. The arrival of Union reenforcements under General John Pope and the arrival of the remainder of Jackson's Army resulted in a two day stand off.

The Army of the Gulf

Military Service Record: June 1863, General Nathaniel P. Banks
Return of the Department of the Gulf. June 3, 1863 to June 30, 1863. Remarks: Before Port Hudson, LA Commanding.
RG 094 Records of the Adjutant Generals Office, The National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

General Banks next received command of the defenses of Washington D.C. where he helped to organize and reenforce the capital's massive defensive system of forts and trenches to prevent a Confedertate attack. In November, 1863 President Lincoln asked General Banks to organize a force of 30,000 recruits drawn mostly from the New York and New England region. It was here that General Banks political background was helpful. As a former Governor of Massachusetts, Banks was a well known figure throughout the region, and was politically connect to the governors of these states. The recruitment drive was very successful and General Banks was able to help raise 30,000 new recruits for the war effort. In December General Banks sailed from New York with this large force of recruits to replace Major General Benjamin Butler at New Orleans, Louisiana, as commander of the Department of the Gulf which encompassed the Gulf states which were occupied by Federal troops. Under orders to ascend the Mississippi River to join forces with General Ulysses S. Grant, who was then investing the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The siege of Port Hudson occurred in the summer of 1863 when 30,000 Union troops under the command of General Nathaniel Banks surrounded the Mississippi town and Confederate stronghold of Port Hudson, Louisiana. The attack, in cooperation with General U.S. Grants attack on Vicksburg, Mississippi was intended to take the Mississippi River away from the Confederacy and cut the Confederate nation in two. The 6,500 Confederate defenders of the Fort at Port Hudson were able to hold off repeated Union assaults for 48 days. When news filtered back that Vicksburg had fallen to General Grant the Confederate troops inside of Port Hudson surrendered. The surrender gave the Union control over the entire Mississippi River, cutting off important states such as Arkansas and Texas. Both sides suffered heavy casualties: about 5,000 Union soldiers were killed during the siege with an additional 4,000 succumbing to disease. The Confederate defenders of Port Hudson suffered around 700 casualties from battle and over a thousand who died of disease. The siege of Port Hudson was also notable that for the first time African-American troops were used in combat. Known as the Corps D'Afrique, the regiment had been raised and supplied on orders from General Banks.

Letter from General U.S. Grant to President Abraham Lincoln
Letter from General Ulysses S. Grant to President Abraham Lincoln. The letter was written by Grant as he lay siege to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant is
informing President Lincoln that General Banks had Port Hudson "closely invested" The letter is dated June 8, 1863. Port Hudson would hold out for over a month
more; surrendering to General Banks on July 9, 1863, five days after Grant took of Vicksburg.
RG 107: Letters Received by the Secretary of War, Registered Series 1801-1870, The National Archives, Waltham.

In the autumn of 1863, General Banks organized two seaborne expeditions to Texas, chiefly for the purpose of preventing the French in Mexico from aiding the Confederacy and moving French troops into the state of Texas. Banks planed 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, General Banks left New Orleans with twenty-three ships and landed an invasion force at Brazos Santiago, near the mouth of the Rio Grande River. General Banks troops would eventually secure possession of the region and would force French Emperor Napoleon III to back away from his intended goal of helping the Confederacy and taking Mexico as a French possession.

The Red River Campaign

Early in 1864, Union General Henry W. Halleck ordered an invasion of the cotton-growing sections of Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. The leading thrust of the campaign, under the command of General Banks was to move up the Red River in Louisiana and would be supported in its march by Union Admiral David Dixon Porter's fleet of Union gunboats. Banks command and a force from Mississippi under Union General Andrew Jackson Smith were to converge on Alexandria, Louisiana, after which the combined force would move on to a junction with Federal troops under the command of General Fredrick Steele moving Southward from Arkansas. The army would then sweep up the Red River Valley to Shreveport, the Confederate capital of Louisiana, and on into Eastern Texas.

Photo of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks
Photograph of General Banks as he appeared as a Major General of Volunteers in 1863, just prior to the Port Hudson campaign. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

By the middle of March 1864, the small Union Fleet under Admiral Porter and the Army under General Banks had taken Fort DeRussy and occupied Alexandria, Louisiana. The retreating Confederate troops under the command of General Richard Taylor (son of former President Zachary Taylor) halted at Mansfield, Louisiana, south of Shreveport. Taylor posted his army in good defensive positions. General Taylor's Army of 12,000 would defeat the larger Union Army under Banks at the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864. They would fight the Union Army to a strategic draw the following day at the Battle of Pleasant Hill. Short of water and feed for his men and horses, not knowing where his supply boats were and receiving divided opinions from his senior commanders, General Banks ordered a retreat back down the river to Grand Ecore. The withdrawal of General Banks Army placed the Union fleet in jeopardy. The Red River had not risen to its usual depth as anticipated, and it was uncertain if the ships under Admiral Porter's command could pass the rapids at Grand Ecore. Throughout the campaign, the river's low water level had been a constant problem to Banks naval support of gunboats. Now, Banks and Porter discovered that the river was so low that the gunboats were trapped above the rapids.

To save the flotilla, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey suggested that the river could be dammed to raise the water level and f1oat the gunboats over the shallow rapids. Banks authorized Bailey to begin construction and gave day and night attention to the completion of the dam. Through the next two weeks, troops struggled to build the dam which eventually made it possible for the fleet to escape capture or destruction.

When the threat of General Banks advance had been removed, Confederate General Edmund Kirby-Smith undertook both to pursue Banks Army and to crush General Steele's expedition coming southward from Arkansas. On April 30, 1864 the Confederate Army under Smith attacked Steele at Jenkins Ferry, Arkansas. General Steele retreated to Little Rock. General Smith then turned southward to join General Taylor for a final blow against Banks, but Banks men had already retreated back down the Red River. The defeat of the Red River expedition brought most operations in the Trans-Mississippi to a close. The Confederate forces under Smith and Taylor held out until May of 1865, when General Smith surrendered his army, thus ending the war in the Trans-Mississippi.

The Red River campaign ended in a Union failure and was General Banks last active command. Removed from field command, President Lincoln placed Banks on leave in Washington, where Banks used his considerable political skill to lobby members of Congress to support the president's reconstruction plans for Louisiana. General Banks had earlier engineered the election victory of a moderate loyalist civilian government in Louisiana. President Lincoln was so impressed with General Banks work in Louisiana that he had wanted to use the state as a test case for his post-war reconstruction policies but was assassinated before being able to implement them.

Top of Page

Post-War Career

In August 1865, General Banks was mustered out of the service by President Andrew Johnson, and from 1865-1873 he was again a representative in the United States Congress, serving as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and as chair of the Republican Congressional caucus. Congressman Banks played a key role in the final passage of the Alaska Purchase legislation and was one of the strongest advocates of manifest Destiny, a phrase that expressed the belief that the United States was destined to expand from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean; it has also been used to advocate for or justify other territorial acquisitions. Advocates of Manifest Destiny believed that expansion was not only good, but that it was obvious ("manifest") and certain ("destiny"). General Banks wanted the United States to aquire Canada and the Caribbean islands to reduce European influence in the region.

Photo of Congressman Nathaniel P. Banks
Photograph of Congressman Nathaniel P. Banks as he appeared in 1878. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

Unhappiness with the course of the administration of President Ulysses Grant led, in 1872, to Banks joining the Liberal-Republican revolt in support of Horace Greeley, who was running for president against Grant. While Banks was campaigning across the North for Greeley, an opponent successfully gathered enough support to defeat him in his Massachusetts district.

In 1874, Banks was reelected to Congress as an independent and served the following term (1875-1877) as a Republican again. Defeated for another term in 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him the United States Marshal for Massachusetts, a post he held from 1879 until 1888. In 1888, Banks was again elected to the United States Congress. Congressman Banks' final term saw significant mental deterioration (Banks suffered from Alzheimer's disease) and he was not renominated. He passed away quietly at home, surrounded by his family on September 1, 1894.

Top of Page

Request a Passport Stamp

Attention Essay Contest Entrants! You may request a passport stamp by email for visiting this online exhibit.

Email us to request a passport stamp.

Top of Page


Banks, Raymond H. The King of Louisiana, 1862-1865, and Other Government Work: A Biography of Major Gen. Nathaniel Prentice Banks, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Las Vegas, NV R.H. Banks 2005

Bearss, Edwin C. Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River campaign and Union Failure in the West. University of Tennessee Press, October, 2006

Cunningham, Edward. The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863, Louisiana state University Press, May, 1994.

Eicher, John H. & Eicher, David J. Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001.

Hollandsworth, James G. Pretense of Glory: The Life of General Nathaniel P. Banks, Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Johnson, Ludwell. The Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War, Kent State University Press, April 1993.

Tunnell, Ted Crucible of Reconstruction: War, radicalism and race in Louisiana, 1862-1877, Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

U.S. Congress Biography

Top of Page

The National Archives at Boston >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272