Archer, who was forty-five years old at Gettysburg, was born in the northern Maryland town of Bel Air. He attended Princeton University, where he was nicknamed "Sally." (There is much conjecture about Archer's sexual orientation. Some point to his feminine nickname as an indication that he was homosexual, but Mary Chesnut, the Confederate diarist, mentioned that Archer was a classmate of her husband's, and according to Mr. Chesnut, "in Princeton College they called him Sally Archer, he was so pretty when he entered"--evidently Archer's smooth, delicate features alone accounted for the moniker. Others cite the fact that, after his capture, he played the women's parts in the skits put on by the prisoners at Johnson's Island prison camp, but Archer was slight of build, even frail, and those parts might have fallen to him solely for that reason. There is also the testimony of one North Carolinian that at Johnson's Island, after a dinner party: "Capt. Taylor got some whiskey . . . & he had Gen. Archer down & they all got drink together & got to hugging each other & saying that they had slept together many a time." This, however, could be a description of drunken reminiscing by old army buddies, who after all were sometimes forced to huddle together for warmth at night during cold-weather campaigns. It is true that Archer had never married, and was not comfortable in the presence of single women. A friend described the general as "timid and retiring" socially. The only women in his life were his sister and mother.) After graduating in 1835, Archer studied law at the University of Maryland and was admitted to the bar. He practiced law until the Mexican War began in 1846, when he joined the army as captain of infantry in the Regular Army. There, he received a brevet for gallantry at the Battle of Chapultapec. His only wound, however, was suffered in a duel with a fellow officer. (Archer's second in the duel was his friend Thomas J. Jackson.) After the war with Mexico was over, he went back to his law practice, then reentered the regular army in 1855, again as an infantry captain.
Archer continued to serve in the Regular Army until Southern secession. Then, on March 14, 1861--even before some of the eventual Confederate states had left the Union--he resigned his commission and two days later received a captaincy in the new Confederate army. At the time, he was stationed in Fort Walla Walla in Washington Territory, so he was forced to travel overland across the entire continent to reach the Confederacy. When he arrived in Richmond, he was appointed colonel of a Virginia regiment by Governor Letcher, but to the governor's embarrassment, the position had already been filled. Finally, in October, he was appointed colonel of the 5th Texas regiment, which was organized in Richmond from independent companies which had made their way to the southern capital from the Lone Star State.
Archer's regiment was brigaded with other Texas regiments under the leadership of Col. John B. Hood and sent to the Peninsula the following spring. With no real battle experience, Archer was plucked from his regiment--where he had not endeared himself to the Texans, who thought him a tyrant--and promoted to brigadier general on June 3, 1861 to take command of Brig. Gen. Robert Hatton's three Tennessee regiments after Hatton was killed in the battle of Seven Pines. The men of the Tennessee Brigade didn't initially take to Archer any more than the Texans had:
"his temper was irascible, and so cold was his manner that we thought him at first a Martinet. Very non-communicative, the bearing and extreme reserve of the old army officer made him, for a time, one of the most hated of men. No sooner, however, had he led his brigade through the first Richmond campaign. than quite a evolution took place in sentiment . . . . He had none of the politician or aristocrat, but never lost the dignity or bearing of an officer. While in battle he seemed the very God of war, and every inch a soldier according to its strictest rules, but when the humblest private approached his quarters he was courteous. There was no deception in him and he spoke his mind freely, but always with the severest dignity. He won the hearts of his men by his wonderful judgment and conduct on the field, and they had the most implicit confidence in him. He was dubbed "The Little Game Cock."
Archer's brigade was combined with five others later in the month to form a new division under the command of Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill, which Hill styled the "Light Division." Archer's first combat at the head of his brigade came in the Seven Days' Battles. There was initial frustration at Mechanicsville, where the brigade was repulsed assaulting a strong Union position. At Gaines' Mill, Archer's brigade plunged to within twenty paces of the Union line before being driven back by heavy fire.
Shifted to Jackson's command in front of Pope's Union army, Archer and his men performed competently at the Battle of Cedar Mountain. At the climactic defeat of Pope at Second Manassas, Archer's men saw heavy fighting in defense of the Railroad Cut, and Archer's horse was shot out from under him.
In the Maryland Campaign in September, Archer participated in the capture of Harper's Ferry, then, on the march to rejoin the main army at Sharpsburg, he became too ill to continue on duty, and turned the brigade over to a subordinate. As the Light Division arrived at Sharpsburg and deployed to attack, Archer got out of his ambulance and resumed command, though he could barely stay in the saddle. A.P. Hill described his division's attack upon arriving thus: "My troops were not a minute too soon. . . . With a yell of defiance, Archer charged [the enemy], retook McIntosh's guns, and drove them back pell-mell." This moment, at the spearhead of the dramatic attack that saved the Army of Northern Virginia at Sharpsburg, was Archer's grandest of the war. The next morning, his remaining strength completely exhausted by the previous day's effort, he relinquished command again and went back to his sickbed.
At Fredericksburg, Archer was a principal in another drama, this time nearly costing the Confederate army its right flank. As Hill laid out the defensive deployments there, a 500-yard gap was left between Lane's brigade's right and Archer's brigade's left. The area was a marshy wood that Hill evidently thought was impenetrable. When the Pennsylvanians of Meade's division attacked, they proved different--Meade drove as many Federals as he could into the gap, and threatened to rupture the Confederate front. Archer, again coming off sick leave on the day of the battle, proved himself equal to the crisis. He bent back his line so that it remained firing at the Yankees storming through the gap. He was in the thick of the action, cutting at enemy soldiers with his heavy saber, and for a moment was engaged in a violent struggle with a Yankee who held the bridle of his rearing black mare. As described by Lieut. Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson: "Notwithstanding the perilous situation in which Archer's brigade was placed, his right, changing front, continued to struggle with undaunted firmness, materially checking the advance of the enemy until reinforcements came to its support." Brig. Gen. Jubal Early, whose men came to Archer's aid, praised Archer more explicitly: "I feel it incumbent upon me to state that to Brigadier-General Archer . . . is due the credit of having held the enemy in check, with a small portion of his men, after his flank and rear had been gained . . . . But for the gallant stand made by General Archer the enemy would have gained an advantage which it would have required a greater sacrifice of life to wrest from him than was made."
Archer and his men were near the end of Jackson's long flanking column at Chancellorsville. When the rear of the column was attacked by men from Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles's Third Corps, Archer took it upon himself to turn his and Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas's brigade around and leave the column to repulse the Federals. In so doing, he missed the assault that evening which drove in and routed the Federal Eleventh Corps. Though he didn't clear his decision with Hill, much less with Jackson, there is no evidence that Archer was reprimanded. The morning of the next day, Archer was placed on the right of the front line, and going forward, he seized, without realizing it, the strategically crucial high ground called Hazel Grove. Artillery was quickly wheeled into position, enfilading the Union position near the Chancellor House. Hazel Grove was also the "joint" between the separated wings of the army--at ten o'clock in the morning, General Lee rode up to Archer's brigade at the Grove, an event which signaled the reunification of the Army of Northern Virginia, which had been dangerously divided since Jackson's flank march the previous day. So many of the high command of Jackson's force had been wounded in the desperate fighting on May 1 and 2 that Archer was actually in command of the Light Division in the latter stages of the battle.
From his writings and the testimony of men who knew him it is evident that Archer was not an especially clever man, despite his Princeton education. He was no dashing leader, but as his brigade approached Gettysburg in the vanguard of Lee's army on July 1, he at least had the self-assurance that came with the knowledge that there was very little the Yankees could show him that he had not already seen at the head of the Tennessee Brigade over the last year.
| Archer's was the lead brigade of Heth's division as it marched toward
Gettysburg along the Chambersburg Pike on July 1. Knowing to expect an enemy
cavalry outpost on the road, he was not unprepared when, around 7:30 that
morning, enemy cavalrymen were spotted and the first shots rang out. After the
Confederate skirmishers slowly pushed the blue troopers past Herr Ridge over
the next hour and a half, Heth finally deployed Archer's brigade on the right
of the Pike and Davis's brigade on the left along the crest. About 9:30 A.M.,
Heth ordered Archer and Davis forward to drive the pesky cavalry away once and
for all. Archer presciently protested, suggesting that his brigade should not
be pushed so far forward of any support, but Heth insisted, and Archer's
regiments started across the shallow valley. When Archer's men slowly ascended
the wooded ridge to the east, however, they were surprised by the appearance of
enemy infantry--not just any infantry, but the crack black-hatted veterans of
the Iron Brigade, who were just arriving and swarming over the ridgecrest.
This was just the sort of thing Archer had warned against. As bristling lines
of muskets roared and crackled, the right, then the left of Archer's brigade
fell back to Willoughby Run a few yards in their rear. The right collapsed
completely, then the left, and soon the entire brigade was running for the
rear. Those not quick enough were taken captive, among them General Archer,
who was sick with fever (for the third time in his last four battles) and too
weak to run, on the west bank of the ravine. For him, the battle--and the
Archer was marched away the next day and eventually confined on Johnson's Island in Ohio for about a year. He was exchanged in August 1864, but he had been worn out. He died of simple exhaustion two months later.
For further reading:
"Brigadier General James T. Archer." Confederate Veteran 8, no. 2, 1900. reprint, Wilmington, 1985
Herndon, Thomas. Reminiscences of the Civil War, 1861-1865. Oklahoma City, n.d.
Storch, Marc & Beth. "'What a Deadly Trap We Were In': Archer's Brigade on July 1, 1863." Gettysburg Magazine 6, Jan 1992