James Archer: Reckoning at Gettysburg
General James J. Archer (Library of Congress)
General James J. Archer
(Library of Congress)

The rain had stopped, but the quiet of the morning belied the intense heat that was coming, both in the elements and on the fields west of Gettysburg. It is clear that the Confederate troops had no idea that Union men were so near. Division commander Harry Heth had ignored a warning the day before from one of his brigade commanders who had personally seen a large contingent of Federal cavalry near Gettysburg. That misunderstanding was coupled with another – that there was a shoe factory in Gettysburg. The factory was actually fourteen miles farther east in the town of Hanover, but the men in gray and butternut were indeed in desperate need of many things, including footwear. Heth and his superior, Lee’s Third Corps Commander A.P. Hill, decided that they would allow their men to head to town in the morning to procure the needed shoes. 1

That decision would eventually bring about the suffering, misery and death of many – including the first commander of Lee’s army to be captured in the war. He was James J. Archer.

James Archer was born near Bel Air, in Harford County, Maryland on December 19, 1817, the eighth of eleven children born to the wealthy and greatly respected Doctor John Archer and his wife, Anna. Dr. Archer was a veteran of the war of 1812. His father before him, James’ paternal grandfather, was also a surgeon who had fought with distinction as a Major in the American Revolution, and who later served in Congress. It is from these two progenitors that James Archer, who was always exceedingly slender and inclined to illness, to have a martial spirit. 2

James was educated at the Bel Air Academy near his home. A classmate remembered him fondly as “ one of the best boys in school ” and one of “ nature’s young noblemen .” Archer attended Princeton, then Bacon College in Georgetown, Kentucky; and later earned a law degree from the University of Maryland, where he was nicknamed “Sally” for his fragile and wiry countenance. After passing the bar, he sold lumber for a time as well as working as an attorney near his native Bel Air. When the war with Mexico erupted, he answered the call to serve his country. He served in many battles as a captain of volunteers, and was brevetted for gallantry to the rank of Major (like his grandfather before him), after the Battle of Chapultepec. Archer, though thin and often ill, was intrepid in battle, and often displayed a fiery temper, which sometimes got him into trouble. 3

After the Mexican War, Archer moved to Texas briefly. His irascible temper irked a fellow Texan, and the two fought a duel, where Archer was wounded. His second in the duel was his future commander, Thomas Jonathan Jackson. 4

The Tennessee State Memorial at Gettysburg.  Archer, as their brigade commander,  is remembered on the monument
The Tennessee State Memorial at Gettysburg. 
Archer, as their brigade commander, is remembered on the monument

Archer returned to practicing law for a time. In 1855, however, he reentered the Federal army as a captain. He was serving in the far reaches of the territorial Walla Walla, Washington when the Civil War came in 1861. When he heard the news, he immediately resigned his Federal commission and headed southeast to volunteer his services to the Confederacy. Since he had spent time in Texas, Archer became the commander of the 5th Texas Regiment.

Perhaps there were some in the regiment who remembered Archer from his time in The Lone Star State, or maybe Archer’s attempt at command seemed harsh to new recruits – Archer’s men were not the only ones to feel inclined to dislike their commander, but they disliked him. The high command, however, liked him a great deal, and less than a year after enlisting, Archer was promoted to brigade command. On June 3, 1862, Archer was promoted as brigadier general to replace the fallen Robert Hatton, who had commanded Tennessee and Alabama troops in the Peninsula Campaign. The recent Battle of Seven Pines had proven costly – even the army commander, General Joe Johnston, had been severely wounded. He was replaced with the gallant and intrepid General Robert E. Lee.

During the summer of 1862, Archer and his brigade were part of A.P. Hill’s Light Brigade in his friend General T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Corps. Archer, though never in robust health, fought in the battles of 2nd Manassas, the capture of Harpers Ferry, and Antietam. Archer was so ill after the capture of Harpers Ferry in mid-September, that he was transported to Sharpsburg in an ambulance. Once he arrived with his brigade, however sick and exhausted he was, he nevertheless joined in the fight.

Archer was on Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and was part of Jackson’s flank attack that routed Federals from the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville. He was saddened at the loss of his friend, General Jackson, from friendly fire after that attack.

When Lee’s army wended their way toward Gettysburg in the early summer of 1863, the excessive rain and relentless humidity caused Archer’s health to deteriorate. Upon his arrival in Gettysburg, Heth told Archer that no Union forces were near, and there was no worry to advance upon the town for the shoes and supplies that were sorely needed.

Archer and his brigade were the lead column in the Confederate advance upon Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, 1863. Dismounted cavalrymen from John Buford’s Division fired upon them as they crossed Marsh Creek, about two miles from town. The first men wounded and killed in the Battle of Gettysburg were likely men from Archer’s Brigade. The volley from the Union troops took Archer and his men by complete surprise. They had advanced down the Chambersburg Pike without skirmishers, and many historians question why Generals Hill and Heth, knowingly in enemy territory, would lead their march into Gettysburg with troops so unprepared. It is a testament to the fact that the Confederates were overconfident to take so great a risk.

Heth ordered Archer to advance with his troops and perform a reconnaissance mission to determine the strength of the Union forces that were firing upon them. Archer protested that his forces were “ too light ” for such a task, but obeyed the order. From Herr’s Ridge to McPherson’s Woods, Archer and his men engaged, and when they arrived in the woods on McPherson’s Ridge, Archer was exhausted. Apparently, so were many of his men. They advanced into a gully in the woods, and fired upon the Union’s Iron Brigade while lying down. 5

In the thickness of the trees, it is impossible to know who fired upon the Union’s Corps Commander, General John Reynolds, who was leading the Iron Brigade against Archer and his men, but Archer’s Brigade claimed that it was they who shot the valiant Pennsylvanian who fell dead shortly after his arrival at Gettysburg.

The day grew “ hot, hotter, hottest ” in the humidity and heated exchange of fire as the Tennesseans and Alabamians under Archer fought for nearly an hour in the woods by the McPherson farm. During a short lull, Archer, feeling ill, took cover behind some of the trees to rest. He was unaware that men from the 2nd Wisconsin were coming upon the scene. These men, part of the famous Iron Brigade, were incensed that their corps commander had fallen and were out for revenge. 6

As Archer rested in the shade, a young man in blue suddenly stood over him, and grasping his uniform, pulled him up and demanded his sword. Archer protested that he should be allowed to keep his sidearm, but gave it up to the young private, Patrick Maloney. 7

A sullen James Archer, along with his aide-de-camp brother, Robert, were presented to General Abner Doubleday, who replaced the fallen Reynolds. Recognizing Archer from their Mexican War days, Doubleday greeted Archer and said he was glad to see him. Archer tersely replied, “ Well, I am not glad to see you by a d___d sight !” 8

About a third of Archer’s men fell in battle or were captured that day. Those who survived unscathed would fight again against the Union center in Pickett’s Charge two days later. Archer’s role in the Battle of Gettysburg, however, was over. He was sent to Fort Delaware for processing, and then spent nearly a year – including the harsh winter of 1863 and early 1864 – in the frigidconditions on Johnson’s Island in the middle of Lake Erie. The freezing temperatures and brisk winds over the lake caused havoc with Archer’s already dangerous health issues, and the general suffered from bronchitis and ague, among other ills. At one time he planned an attempt at a prison break, but gave up the idea when he realized that they couldn’t escape from the island. 9

In August 1864, Archer was one of 600 prisoners of war who were sent back to Fort Delaware in a plan to send them to Morris Island as hostages to keep the Federals from shelling the island. When that worry ended, and the men were never sent to South Carolina, many were paroled instead. Archer was first ordered to join forces with General Hood in Atlanta – as Sherman’s forces were concentrating there, but his broken health was apparent, and he never made the journey. Instead he returned to the Army of Northern Virginia stationed around Petersburg, and once more commanded his old brigade. The reunion, however, was short lived.

In late September, 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant, tired of the stalemate at Petersburg, decided once again to launch an offensive. At the Battle of Peeble’s Farm, on September 30, 1864, Union forces attacked A.P. Hill’s men in an attempt to get around them and take the Confederate capital of Richmond. Hill’s men held, in spite of their meager and malnourished forces. Archer, too, was in the fight. He collapsed, and was taken to Richmond to recover.

Archer never recovered from the rigors of being a prisoner of war. Never in good health, the hazards and hardships of battle and the inclement weather of Johnson’s Island rendered him fatally ill. He died on October 24, 1864 in Richmond, an indirect result of his capture at Gettysburg over a year before. He was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in the Confederate capital. He was 46 years old. 10

Archer had never married. His brothers Robert and Henry, four sisters, and his mother survived him. 11

Although he was not either wounded or killed at Gettysburg like the rest of the general officers who were casualties there, it was this pivotal fight and his subsequent capture that led to his untimely death the following year. 12

Born to privilege, James Archer ended up in unlikely circumstances, leading men who were not his close comrades, suffering in adverse conditions, and dying far too soon. In an interesting and ironic twist, it was illness that claimed him, like so many thousands who took up arms to fight in the costly fratricidal conflict known as The Civil War.

Sources: James J. Archer Family File, Ancestry.com. Coale, C.B. “Recollections of Olden Time”, The Aegis & Intelligencer, Feb. 12, 1869. Evans, Clement A. Confederate Military History, vol. II. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1899. Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946. Freeman, Douglas Southall. R.E. Lee . Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948 (Reprint, first published in 1935). Mackenzie, George N. and Nelson Osgood Rhoades, editors. Colonial Families of the United States of America 1607-1775. Baltimore, MD: The Seaforth Press, 1917. Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg: The First Day . Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders . Baton Rouge: The Louisiana State University Press, 1994 (Reprint, first published in 1959). Additional information found at Archer’s Brigade Marker, Gettysburg National Military Park.

End Notes:

1. Freeman, p. 65.

2. Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 1, p. p. 340. James J. Archer Family File, Ancestry.com. MacKenzie,p. 10.

3. Coale, p. 2. Warner, p. 11.

4. Evans, p. 171.

5. Pfanz, p. 60.

6. Ibid., p. 94.

7. Evans, p. 171. Private Maloney was killed later in the day in the battle.

8. Pfanz, p. 100. Archer’sBrigade Marker, GNMP.

9. Evans, p. 171.

10. Warner, p. 11.

11. James Archer   Family File, Ancestry.com.

12. In all, 35 generals were either killed, wounded, or captured at Gettysburg, a staggering number. Archer was the only one who was captured unwounded. (Union general Charles Graham and Confederate commander Isaac Trimble were both among the wounded and captured, but survived the war.)

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