Fighting Politician: Major General N.P. Banks, by Fred Harvey Harrington
This book is an interesting and not particularly sympathetic biography of Nathaniel Prentice Banks, who is largely remembered only by students of Civil War history, although Banks had a lengthy career as a successful professional politician in the Bay State besides his memorable turn as a political general during the Civil War. The author makes an interesting point about Banks and his career that helps us to better contrast his own career with that of someone like Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant, who are the two figures who are implicitly compared to the subject by the author. In both comparisons, Banks falls short, and this leads the author to reflect upon what it is that allows someone to make a powerful mark in history. Lincoln was only a single-term member of the US House of Representatives, while Banks served ten terms, yet Lincoln’s character and principles allowed him to rise to the challenge of his times with genuine moral courage. Similarly, if Grant was by no means a skilled politician, he has reached immortality both for his capacity for growth as well as his profound military skill and sense of humanity. Banks was a successful enough politician to win and hold office, but he failed to reach the highest level of achievement because his focus was on staying in office rather than maintaining a consistent approach or character.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages of written material divided into eighteen chapters. About half of the chapters cover Banks’ Civil War career and about half of them cover his prewar and postwar career. The first few chapters of the book cover Banks’ life as a bobbin bow whose focus on self-education and self-improvement allowed him first to become a state politician in Massachusetts and then a free soil populist who stayed in power through adroit and opportunistic political maneuvers to appeal to a variety of different constituencies, including the Know-Nothings. The middle chapters then look at Banks’ efforts at recruiting troops, leading him to an early promotion to major general that led him to outrank notable generals like Grant for most of the war and Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, and others for the entire conflict. This military service, including his service in Louisiana and his abortive efforts to take Sabine Pass and Galveston and the Red River at Shreveport, and his efforts to attain cotton and deal with the French as well as with southerners. The rest of the book then looks at the postwar career of Banks, which included more time spent in the House of Representatives.
Whether or not the reader will appreciate this book depends on their feelings about Banks. The author spends a lot of time talking about Banks’ political shenanigans both as a politician as well as a general. If the author has much to say about Banks’ efforts in the Shenandoah Valley as well as Louisiana, he has even more to say about Banks’ efforts to rise above his humble origins and serve as a populist leader first among the Democrats, then among the coalition between Democrats and Free-Soilers, then as a moderate Republican with strong imperialist interests. Throughout this period he sought to find winning issues that would allow him to stay in power, because he did not have the money to keep himself in suitable style apart from political power, which eventually included a certain amount of bribery from lobbyists during the Gilded Age. Banks ends up looking like an unsavory politician of the modern mold of grifters and corrupt officeholders, and not the sort of moral hero that one would expect. And if Banks reminds the reader of politicians of the present day who like things named after them and who seek high office without containing noble and high character, for that reason the author finds enough fault that the reader might be inclined to agree with his severe judgment.