James Jay Archer was born on December 19, 1817 near Stafford, Maryland. He attended Princeton University, graduating in 1835, then attended Bacon College in Kentucky. He returned to Maryland, studying at the University of Maryland, passing the bar and establishing himself as an attorney.
Archer volunteered during the Mexican War and served as a captain, winning a brevet to major for bravery at Chapultepec. In 1848 he fought and was wounded in a duel with future Union general Andrew Porter. Thomas Jackson served as Archer’s second.
After a brief return to Maryland in 1855 Archer decided to rejoin the army, serving as a captain in the 9th United States infantry Regiment in the Pacific Northwest. He resigned his commission on May 14, 1861 and, after waiting to receive official confirmation that his resignation had been accepted, made his way from Fort Walla Walla in Washington Territory to the South, where he was quickly commisioned captain in the Confederate Army.
Archer became colonel of the 5th Texas Infantry, leading his men at Eltham’s Landing and Seven Pines. He was hated by the Texans, who considered him a “tyrant” for his Old Army discipline.
On June 3, 1862 Archer was promoted to brigadier general and given the Tennessee Brigade (1st, 7th & 14th Tennessee Regiments) of Robert Hatton, who had been killed at Seven Pines. The brigade was attached to General A.P. Hill’s Light Division. The 5th Alabama and 19th Georgia Regiments were added to his brigade, which fought in the Seven Days Battles, Cedar Mountain, and Second Manassas, where Archer’s horse was killed under him.
Archer seemed to get along better with his brigade, and earned the nickname “the little game cock” for his ferocity in combat, small stature and frail build. Sickness forced him to lead his brigade from an ambulance during the Maryland Campaign, but that did not prevent him from helping to lead the decisive flank attack on the Union Ninth Corps at Sharpsburg or in driving back Union forces three days later at Shepherdstown. Archer’s brigade played important roles at both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
In June of 1864 the creation of the Third Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia assigned Archer’s Brigade to the newly-created division of Henry Heth. Archer’s health continued to be poor, hurt by the long marches in hot and humid weather, but again that did not prevent him from leading his brigade on a reconnaissance from Cashtown to Gettysburg.
The reconnaissance escalated into a fight with dismounted Union cavalry, and suddenly Archer’s Brigade found itself under attack by veterans of the Iron Brigade of the Army of the Potomac. The sick and exhausted Archer was grabbed by Private Patrick Maloney of the Second Wisconsin and dragged back to Union lines where he had a short and bitter exchange with an acquaintance from the Old Army, Abner Doubleday. Archer was the first general officer of Robert E. Lee’s army to be captured.
Archer and his younger brother Robert, who served as his aide-de-camp, ended up at the prisoner of war camp on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie. The harsh winter weather further deteriorated Archer’s health. He once tried to escape by walking across the ice of the lake, and another time by bribing a guard with money and his watch, but both times was recaptured.
After a year of captivity he was exchanged in the summer of 1864. He was originally ordred to the Army of Tennessee at Atlanta. But his orders wre changed and instead he rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia on August 19 to command his old brigade (which had been combined with Walker’s Brigade) in the trenches of Petersburg. His health finally collapsed after the Battle of Peeble’s Farm, and he died in Richmond on October 24, 1864 at the age of 46.
James Jay Archer is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.