Nathaniel Banks, a lifelong politician and former governor of Massachusetts, was appointed as one of the first major generals of the volunteers by President Lincoln.
During the 1862 Peninsula Campaign the two divisions under the command of Banks were assigned the task of preventing Confederate commander, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, from reinforcing the defenses of Richmond, Virginia. Banks and his men were unsuccessful; on May 25th, 1862 Banks lost the battle of First Winchester in Winchester, Virginia to “Stonewall” Jackson and the Jackson Brigade. On August 9th, Banks met Jackson and his men for a second time in the Shenandoah Valley at the battle of Cedar Creek; an indecisive winner to this battle led both sides to claim victory, with no real outcome.
In December 1862 Banks traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana to command the Department of the Gulf. From New Orleans Banks traveled up the Mississippi and on May 27, 1863 he began to attack Port Hudson, Louisiana. This was the first time that African American troops participated in a Civil War battle. The 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard fought under the Banks’ command suffering numerous casualties. After an unsuccessful first attempt the Union troops attacked again on June 14th, 1863. This too ended unsuccessfully; however, Banks was determined to break through because of the need to join Ulysses S. Grant’s siege on Vicksburg, Mississippi. The initial attacks had now progressed into a siege with strong artillery bombardment. On July 9th, 1863 the Confederate forces surrendered having run out of supplies and receiving word that Vicksburg had also surrendered.
During the Red River Campaign of 1864 Banks was ordered to capture Mobile, Alabama. However, Banks never made it to Mobile, following a loss at the Battle of Mansfield, in De Soto Parish, Louisiana Banks and his men were forced to retreat. Arriving in Alexandria, Louisiana Banks’ army attempted to continue their retreat on Dixon Porter’s fleet. With water levels low in the channel the men were forced to build dams under heavy fire. In two days the dams were completed raising the water level high enough to continue the retreat. With the Confederates holding the Red River until after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender in 1865, the Red River Campaign was considered a failure.
Following the Red River Campaign, Banks was removed from command and sent back to Washington, DC on leave for the remainder of the war.