Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was Not a Fan of General Nathaniel Banks
Gideon Welles served as Secretary of the Navy from 1861-1869, which at that time was a cabinet level office. Welles had a real insider’s look at the operations of the Lincoln Administration and the military during the Civil War, and he recorded a lot of history–plus his frank opinions–in his diary.
Welles turned the peacetime Navy into an effective fighting force that played a key role in the eventual Union victory. The Navy secretary had plenty to say in his diary about people and events during his time in the cabinet, and he called ’em like he saw them, good or bad.
Major General Nathaniel Banks was one of those whom Welles’ had a low opinion. In the spring of 1864, Banks led the Red River Campaign, a joint army and navy campaign that went up the Red River in Louisiana with objectives of destroying the Confederate army in that region; to occupy eastern Texas; and to confiscate cotton from plantations along the way. Banks’ army was defeated at the Battle of Sabine Crossroads, near Shreveport, and retreated back down the Red River. Admiral David Porter commanded the navy fleet on the campaign. Porter’s fleet nearly was trapped on the river due to low water levels, and was saved by the building of dam that raised the water high enough to allow the fleet to escape. For the Union, the campaign was a debacle that did little more than cost lives and take essential military resources away from other campaigns.
Like many of his fellow officers in both the army and navy, Porter would try to put himself in the best possible light when discussing or writing about failed campaigns and battles. However, Porter was a professional officer and in general, a very good one. He did not like Banks, a political general with no military background and little ability. Porter’s correspondence and reports reflected this contempt, but his assessments of Banks were largely correct, and also reinforced Welles’ opinion of Banks. Here are some excerpts from Welles’ 1864 diary where he expresses his disdain for Banks in no uncertain terms:
April 26, Tuesday…Rear Admiral Porter has sent me a long, confidential letter in relation to affairs on Red River and the fights that have taken place at Mansfield, Pleasant Hill, etc. The whole affair is
unfortunate. Great sacrifice of life and property as been made in consequence of an incompetent general in command. It is plain from Admiral Porter’s account that Banks is no general, has no military capacity, is wholly unfit for the position assigned him. He has never exhibited military capacity, and I regret the President should adhere to him…Banks has much of the demagogue, is superficially smart, has volubility and a smack of party management, which is often successful. The President thinks he has Presidential pretensions and friends to back him, but it is a great mistake. Banks is not only no general, but he is not much of a statesman. He is something of a politician, and a party man of his own stamp, and for his advancement, but is not true and reliable.
There is an attempt to convert this reverse into a victory, but the truth will disclose itself. The President should, if Porter’s statements are reliable, dismiss Banks, or deprive him of military command.
I asked [Major General Henry] Halleck, who called on me to-day, what the army opinion was of the recent conflicts on Red River. He said we undoubtedly had the worst of it, and that Banks had no military talent and education. While I do not place a high estimate on Halleck himself, his expressed opinion of Banks corresponds with my own.
May 9th, Monday…Mr. Heap, clerk to Rear-Admiral Porter, arrived yesterday from Alexandria on the Red River. He brings a deplorable account of affairs in a confidential dispatch from Admiral Porter and more fully detailed by himself. The misfortunes are attributed entirely and exclusively to the incapacity of General Banks. Neither Admiral Porter no Mr. Heap admit any mitigating circumstances, but impute to his imbecility the loss of the expedition and the probable sacrifice of the fleet and the army. They accuse him of equivocating, of electioneering [the Lincoln Administration was trying to establish a loyal government in Louisiana], of speculating in cotton and general malfeasance and mismanagement.
I took Heap with me to the President and had him tell his own story. It was less full and denunciatory than to me, but it seemed to convince the President, who I have thought was over-partial to Banks, and I have thought [Secretary of State William] Seward contributed to that feeling. The President, after hearing Heap, said he had rather cousined up to Banks, but for some time past had begun to think he was erring in doing so…
I am not one of the admirers of Banks. He has a certain degree of offhand smartness, very good elocution and command of language, with perfect self-possession, but is not profound. He is a pretender not a statesman, a politician of a certain description; has a great ambition but little fixed principle.
–The Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume II
Although he remained in the army until the end of the war, Banks was removed from field command after the Red River Campaign. He spent much of the rest of the war in Washington DC, where he was presumably ignored by Gideon Welles.