Banks was a political general with few military skills, but as an anti-slavery Republican from Massachusetts, he helped President Lincoln’s administration maintain support in that region.
He was a lawyer,and 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.
When the Civil War began, Banks was commissioned as a general despite his complete lack of military experience. Banks commanded an army in the Shenandoah Valley during Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s campaign 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 August, Banks commanded a corps at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia. He again found himself pitted against Jackson, and again lost to him. Banks was forced to retreat to Washington, D.C.
Banks was then sent 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. In 1864, Banks commanded the Red River Campaign in northern Louisiana, which turned into a complete Union disaster. He did not command troops in the field again. Banks also managed the reconstruction of Louisiana during the war, and his record in doing so was also suspect. He used the state’s antebellum constitution to govern and simply deleted 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 plantations.
After the war, Banks served two more stints in Congress and also spent time as a U.S. marshall. He was serving in Congress when he died in 1894 at age 78.