Banks, Nathaniel Prentiss (1816–1894)

By: David Paul Smith

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: July 22, 2020

Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, congressman, governor of Massachusetts, and Union general, was born on January 30, 1816, in Waltham, Massachusetts, to Nathaniel P. and Rebecca (Greenwood) Banks. Working in the cot ton mill where his father was superintendent later earned him the sobriquet "Bobbin Boy of Massachusetts." He married Mary Theodosia Palmer in 1847 and was a member of the Massachusetts House from 1849 until 1852; he was speaker for two years. Banks was elected as a coalition Democrat to the Thirty-third Congress in 1853 and as a candidate of the American (Know-Nothing) party to the Thirty-fourth Congress, which he served as speaker. He was elected as a Republican to the Thirty-fifth Congress and served from 1853 until he resigned in 1857 to become governor.

After his service as governor of Massachusetts from 1858 to 1861, Banks was commissioned major general of volunteers, on May 16, 1861. After setbacks against Confederates in Virginia in 1862, he journeyed to New Orleans and succeeded Benjamin F. Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf. Acting in concert with Ulysses S. Grant's campaign to open the Mississippi River, Banks attempted to storm Confederate defenses at Port Hudson in May and June 1863 and received the surrender of the city on July 9. He received an official "Thanks of Congress" for his Port Hudson campaign, then at the government's direction prepared to move against Texas in an attempt to influence the French presence in Mexico, to secure stores of cotton, and to restore a Unionist government to the state.

Banks planned 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 Banks left New Orleans with twenty-three ships and landed an invasion force at Brazos Santiago, near the mouth of the Rio Grande, on November 2, 1863. Union troops soon occupied nearby Brownsville, Texas, and began to drive northward along the coast and up the Rio Grande to shut off the trade coming through "the Confederacy's back door."

Banks returned to New Orleans just one month after the landing at Brazos Santiago, pressed by his superiors to invade East Texas by way of the Red River. The Red River campaign ended in a Union failure and was Banks's last active command. He was honorably discharged from military service on August 24, 1865, and subsequently entered the House of Representatives. During his last years he served in Congress, as a member of the Massachusetts Senate, and as United States marshal. With his health broken during his last term in Congress, he returned to Waltham, where he died on September 1, 1894, survived by a son and two daughters.

Nathaniel Prentiss Banks Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Dictionary of American Biography. Fred Harvey Harrington, Fighting Politician: Major General N. P. Banks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1948). Ludwell H. Johnson, Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1958). Robert L. Kerby, Kirby Smith's Confederacy: The Trans-Mississippi South, 1863–1865 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972). United States Congress, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–1989 (Washington: GPO, 1989). The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: GPO, 1880–1901).

  • Military
  • Confederate Military
  • Generals and Brigade Commanders
  • Soldiers
  • Politics and Government
  • Government Officials
Time Periods:
  • Civil War

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

David Paul Smith, “Banks, Nathaniel Prentiss,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022,

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July 22, 2020

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