Nathaniel P. Banks is in the news this week. His name is making its way into news articles, tweets, and dire predictions. Why is this Civil War general gaining sudden “popularity”?
Rewind to five years before the Civil War. In 1856, after a two month delay and the casting of 133 ballots, Nathaniel P. Banks became Speaker of the House for the 34th U.S. Congress.
This week multiple ballots have already been cast for the Speaker of the House for the 118th U.S. Congress, and by the time this blog post publishes, the issue may or may not be decided. Suddenly, historians, politicians, news anchors, commentators, reporters, and curious citizens have been googling Nathaniel P. Banks…and regardless of political party, I think it’s safe to assume we all don’t want this gridlock to take 134 votes!
So who was Nathaniel Banks? Here’s a brief answer, focusing mostly on his political and volunteer military service.
Born on January 30, 1816, in Massachusetts, Banks appreciated education and learning in his youth, making time to read even as he worked in a textile mill to help support his family. He attended lectures whenever possible, formed a debate club, advocated for the Temperance Movement, and attracted the attention of local politicians. His first two runs for political office (state legislature) in 1844 and 1847 ended in failure, but he won in 1848. Banks’s values and political savvy choices drew him to form a coalition with Free Soil Party though he was a Democrat at the time, and when the Free Soil Party gained control of Massachusetts’s House of Representatives, he became speaker of the (state) house. A moderate abolitionist, Banks looked for Democrat support in an 1852 run for U.S. Congress; his refusal to give up his abolition views lost him Democrat support, but Free Soilers voted for him.
As Banks arrived in Washington City, the political scene was in upheaval. The Whig party had lost power, the Democrat party was fractured, nationalism ran rampant with the Know-Nothings, and pro-abolitionist leaders had yet to fully organize to be a powerful political force. Banks voted against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, something which his fellow Democrats disliked, but which his constituents supported. Next, he publicly stated his support of the abolition of slavery. In 1854, Banks joined forces with Know-Nothing leaders. The following year he chaired the Republican Party convention, a concerted effort to pull together anti-slavery Democrats, old Whigs, Free Soilers, and the Know Nothings. Banks also made a statement in 1855 that would politically (and militarily) haunt him; he said that the Union did not have to be preserved and that with certain circumstances it might be best to let the Union “slide.” When rapidly changing events hurled the nation toward civil war and the context had changed, Banks would still be accused of supporting disunion.
The 34th U.S. Congress assembled in December 1855. The business of choosing the Speaker of the House was painful. The Democrat Party held a 35% minority, but the majority was in chaos, fractured views, and mini political parties. The debates and voting for Speaker of the House started on December 3, 1855…they did not conclude until February 2, 1856. From the beginning, the Know-Nothings supported Banks. As the weeks dragged on, a coalition formed in Congress, uniting “The American Party” (Know-Nothings) and the “Opposition Party” (generally just opposed everything the Democrat Party wanted). Banks became Speaker of the House after 133 ballots.
A former house speaker lauded Banks as “in all respects the best presiding officer…ever seen,” high praise for the fractured era that Banks led through. Though he very obviously put abolition politicians in congressional posts, Banks managed to keep respect of his peers, and others saw him as being open and fair when he led cooperation with the investigations of Bloody Kansas and the Caning of Sumner.
In 1857, Banks ran for the office of governor in Massachusetts, and strongly supported by abolitionist-leaning voters, he gained an easy victory. He won governor elections in 1858 and 1859 also. Banks’s name came forward for presidential nomination in the 1860 election, but he failed to win a majority among Massachusetts’s delegation to the Republican convention and quietly stepped down. Also completing his governorship, Banks gave a farewell speech, encouraging national unity and political moderation and then moved to Chicago to become director of the Illinois Central Railroad.
Though President Lincoln initially considered Banks for a cabinet position, Banks became one of the first major generals of volunteers, appointed on May 16, 1861. Lincoln hoped that what Banks lacked in military knowledge and experience he could make up through recruiting and fundraising for the Union cause. General Banks was instrumental in keeping the railroad lines and the city of Baltimore controlled and operating in support of the Union. In field operations, Banks left much to be desired. Confused and eventually out-generaled by “Stonewall” Jackson, he lost the 1862 Valley Campaign and stumbled during the battle of Cedar Mountain. On September 12, 1862, Banks found himself relieved of command as his troops were folded into the Army of the Potomac’s XII Corps.
Banks took command of the Army of the Gulf in November 1862, particularly placed to organize 30,000 new volunteers from the New England states and New York where Banks still had popular memory and political influence. He replaced Benjamin Butler as the U.S. commander in New Orleans, and in 1863 started advancing through Louisiana, ultimately sieging Port Hudson in May. The following year the military disaster of the Red River Campaign ended with Banks removed from command, though he influenced continuing Reconstruction efforts in Louisiana. Following the Civil War years, Banks returned to politics, serving multiple terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and chairing the House Republican Conference. He died on September 1, 1894.
While not usually lauded for military achievements, Nathaniel Banks did have a busy political career and he served as a military officer to defend the concept of Union when he was appointed. His political opportunist moves in the antebellum era are interesting as he tried to navigate a decade of intense political party division which eventually led to the formation of the Republican Party. Of course there are many more details of Banks’s life, military campaigns, and political moments that deserve closer study, but in this moment of history, Banks returns to relevance because he had the longest wait and most ballots to become Speaker of the House. Whether this new rise to relevance is an ominous sign, a short lesson from the past, or something else…I’m sure the comments section will lend its voice.