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The Eclectic Pen - Tales of the Civil War -- Stroking the Cat

By: Delmar H. D. (Sequoia)   + 3 more  
Date Submitted: 9/11/2008
Genre: History » Military
Words: 837

  WHEN THE SHOOTING STARTED, Abraham Lincoln knew he needed good generals. When the president reflected that he also needed to drum up strong political support for his war aims, his thoughts turned to the resident director of the Illinois Central Railroad, Nathaniel P. Banks.

To Nathaniel Prentiss Banks politics had always been a good way to make a living. No crusader, no devotee of a cause, Banks espoused whatever positions and supported whatever candidate appeared to have the best chance of prevailing. Following this practical approach, he became Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives (1856 - 1857) and governor of Massachusetts (1858 -1860).

Early in 1861, President Lincoln offered Banks a commission as major general of volunteers. Lincoln was not impressed with Banks' military experience, limited to militia service in his youth, but he was attracted to Banks' political influence in the New England states.

Banks' commission placed the former Speaker higher in seniority than any general except Winfield Scott, John C. Fremont, and George McClellan, all of whom disappeared from the scene before the war was over. Throughout the war, the Massachusetts political general held seniority over Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas, and all the other major generals, including Grant until Grant became lieutenant general. General Banks' military accomplishments failed to match his seniority.

After suffering defeat at the hands of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and losing again at Cedar Mountain, Banks sailed for New Orleans in November 1862 to relieve General Benjamin F. Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf.

Corpulent Ben Butler, like Banks an influential Massachusetts politician, was an ardent abolitionist and a power in the radical wing of the Republican party who nursed a hatred for Southern people and Southern institutions.

General Butler hanged a Southerner for striking down the stars and stripes. He confiscated gold from New Orleans financial institutions and closed down churches whose ministers refused to pray for Abraham Lincoln.

Butler's most famous exploit was his proclamation that any Southern woman who insulted a Union officer would "be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation." This order was prompted by impertinent behavior towards Union officers by the ladies of New Orleans, including one Southern belle who dumped the contents of a chamber pot over the head of Flag Officer Farragut.

Some called Butler "Spoons" because he was alleged to steal the silverware when dining with Louisiana grandees, but there is no real evidence that he profited improperly from his position

"Beast" Butler became the most hated man in the South, but his tyrannical rule of New Orleans was not entirely negative-he earned grudging approval from some New Orleans newspapers for improving the city's deplorable sanitary conditions and suppressing the lawless element that had held the streets in its grip. Nevertheless, President Lincoln thought it best to replace Butler, and Nathaniel Banks, at the moment unoccupied, seemed a good choice.

Whoever commanded the occupation forces faced difficult problems of economic depression, foreign influence, race relations, a population unconvinced of ultimate Northern victory, and political division among nominal Union supporters.

Besides all the difficulties of civil administration, the occupation chief also commanded a field army battling powerful Confederate forces in Texas and Arkansas and struggling to dislodge the rebels from control of the Mississippi between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

As the president had hoped, Banks' approach to these problems was more moderate than his predecessors

"Since Butler had stroked the cat from tail to head," a Banks aide explained, "and found her full of yawl and scratch, it was determined to stroke her from head to tail, and see if she would hide her claws, and commence to purr."

Banks-immediately released some of Butler's political prisoners and returned some improperly confiscated property. He sought without much success :to improve relations with the churches by bringing in Yankee preachers. Aiding local Unionists in gaining control of the New Orleans school board, he was able to moderate the pro-Southern atmosphere in the public schools. As he had in Massachusetts, Banks sought and gained support from the working class.

The ladies of the Crescent City gave Banks no easier treatment than they had Butler, but the new commander's response was different. He and Mrs. Banks embarked upon a social program of balls, receptions, and concerts designed to "dance the fair Creoles to loyalty."

Banks was not all conciliation and sweetness. "Any... disturbance of the public peace," he proclaimed, "will be punished with the sharpest severity known to military law."

As field commander Banks gained scant success. His strength lay in his ability to focus all his considerable political skills on the problems of civil administration in occupied territory. Despite many defeats and disappointments, Nathaniel P. Banks left Louisiana with a new state government that was accepted, though certainly not loved, by the planter aristocracy, the Louisiana Democrats, and both the moderate and radical factions of the national Republican party.

Abraham Lincoln had found the right man for the job.

The Eclectic Pen » All Stories by Delmar H. D. (Sequoia)

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Kristi S. (mkksimon) - 10/1/2008 7:40 PM ET
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