Nathaniel Banks, a lifelong politician and former governor of Massachusetts, was appointed as one of the first major generals of the volunteers by President Abraham Lincoln.
During the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, the two divisions under the command of Banks were assigned the task of preventing Confederate commander, Gen. 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 Jackson. On August 9th, Banks met Jackson and his men for a second time in the Shenandoah Valley at the Battle of Cedar Mountain; 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 initiated an assault on one of the last Confederate citadels along the Mississippi River, Port Hudson, Louisiana. Part of his forces consisted of the 1st (later 73rd United States Colored Troops) and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard (later the 75th United States Colored Troops), some of the first Black units to enlist to fight for the United States. After an unsuccessful first attempt to capture the stronghold, the Federals renewed their attacks on June 14th, 1863. This, too, ended unsuccessfully. The initial attacks had now morphed into a siege. 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 aboard Adm. David 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.