Confederate General Archer is remembered only as the General captured at Gettysburg.
Brigadier General James Archer [CSA];
A Brief Biography of “The Little Game Cock”
Len Overcash, Sr
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Confederate General James J. Archer is usually remembered only as the General captured at Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, 1863, an incident that gives the impression that Archer was either new to command or possibly an incompetent officer. He was neither. In fact, Archer was a brave and well-liked officer who was captured because he was ordered into Gettysburg without proper support by his superior officer General Henry Heth. Heth firmly believed that the only Federal troops along the Chambersburg Pike were a small squad of cavalry or militia units.
James Jay Archer was born in BelAir, Harford County, Maryland, in 1817. After graduating from Princeton College in 1835, he entered the University of Maryland to study law. Archer was admitted to the Bar and practiced law until 1846 when he enlisted as Captain of Regular Infantry for the war with Mexico. At the battle of Chapultapec, Archer received a brevet for gallantry. After the war, he returned to his law practice. However, his service in the Mexican War seemed to have affected him greatly and he again re-enlisted as Captain in the 9th US Infantry in 1855. He was stationed at Fort Walla-Walla in Washington Territory until March 4, 1861when he resigned to offer his services to the newly-formed Confederacy.
After traveling across the continent to Richmond, Virginia,, Archer was commissioned as Colonel in a Virginia regiment, but the position was given to someone else, so Archer had to wait for an appointment. In October, he was made Colonel of the Fifth Texas regiment, which had been organized in Richmond, Virginia, by the consolidation of several independent companies that had come to fight from the Lone Star State. The 5th was brigaded with other Texans under the leadership of Colonel John Bell Hood. Archer led the Texas during the Peninsula Campaign in actions at Eltham’s Landing and Seven Pines. Then, when Brigadier General Robert Hatton was killed at Seven Pines, Archer was selected to take command of the 5th Alabama, 19th Georgia, 1st Tennessee, 7th Tennessee, and the 14th Tennessee. Archer's promotion to Brigadier General dates from June, 1862.
At first, Archer was not well liked by the men from either Texas or Tennessee, who thought him a tyrant for his insistence on drill and strict obedience to orders. One Tennessean wrote: "... his temper was irascible, and so cold was his manner that we thought him at first a Martinet. Very non-communicative ... ". But that changed as he led them in battle. The same writer later stated: "... While in battle he seemed the very God of war ... 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 regiment became known as "Archer's Tennesseans".
In his after-battle report, Brigadier General John B. Hood commended Archer’s actions during the campaign. Hood wrote in part:
HEADQUARTERS TEXAS BRIGADE, Near Barhamsville, Va., May 7, 1862.
SIR: I have the honor to report that at 7 o'clock this morning, agreeably to your instructions, Col. J. J. Archer, with his regiment, Fifth Texas, of this brigade, proceeded on the blind road leading to Eltham's Landing, on the Pamunkey River, to reconnoiter and drive in the skirmishers of the enemy. He soon met them and drove them steadily in front of him. …
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. B. HOOD,
Brigadier-General, Commanding Texas Brigade.
In late June, Archer was combined with five other brigades to form a new division under the command of Major-General A. P. Hill, which Hill named the "Light Division". Archer remained under Hill for the rest of his career.
In July 27, 1862, Hill was temporarily assigned to reinforce "Stonewall" Jackson's command. Pope had been newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac and bragged that he would “bag Jackson” and defeat Lee. Lee then ordered Jackson to “suppress” Pope as soon as possible. As Pope began moving his army toward Manassas, he sent Major General Nathan P. Banks of the II Corps toward Culpepper. Realizing that Pope had spread his army out, Jackson planned on attacking Banks, but his movements were uncharacteristically slow and Banks attacked first, on August 8th. The battle went well for Banks for the first two hours and then Jackson regained the initiative and forced the Federals to abandon the field. In this engagement Banks lost 2400 and Jackson 1400. Banks was joined by Siegel’s Corps and Rickett’s division on August 11th , so the Confederates buried the rest of their dead and retreated across the Rapidan.
At the Battle of 2nd Manassas, Hill’s men were the left flank of Lee’s army and were stationed at the unfinished Railroad line. The position was not the best, it was vulnerable [too steep in some spots and too deep in others] and Jackson worried about his flanks. Archer was positioned directly behind Gregg on Stony Ridge. A 125-yard gap existed between Thomas and Gregg, but Hill did not seem concerned and that is where the Federals under Grover drove directly toward. At first they achieved some success, but the New Englanders were slowed when the Confederates from Branch and Gregg counter-attacked.
By 5pm, all of Jackson’s men had been involved in the battle, Hill’s men suffering the most. Archer’s and Branch’s men were in reserve, and Hill ordered Archer to relieve Pender. As Archer moved his men into position, he saw Federals moving toward him, but did not let the men know. The surprise attack came from the 63rd PA under Kearny and the Confederates repulsed it and a second attack. Then the 100th PA under Colonel Daniel Leasure attacked and pushed part of Archer’s men out of their position, but retreated as soon as a counter-attack began forming. With Early’s attack and the retreat of the Federals to their main line, the first day of battle ended. Archer suffered heavy casualties and was nearly out of ammunition.
Pope did not resume the attack immediately the next morning, so Hill allowed Archer to go to the rear to resupply. But Pope was planning an attack, but it failed and the Federals began another retreat. Archer’s men easily repulsed a weak attack, but did not follow the retreat too strongly. Archer reached the Groveton Woods after Pender got there and both men realized that the Federals had escaped, so the returned to the RR cut. Near dark, Archer was one of the leading units under Jackson’s delayed attack on Pope’s retreat, capturing four cannon and getting into a brief skirmish with a brigade of Rickett's division nears Pittsylvania after darkness had fallen.
When Lee started north in the first great invasion, Archer helped in the capture of Harper's Ferry. The morning after the capture of Harper's Ferry, a very sick Archer turned over the command of the brigade to Colonel Turney of the 1st Tennessee while he followed in an ambulance. Archer resumed command just as the brigade was forming into line on the extreme left. In front of their position was a narrow corn-field, a plowed field, then a stone fence shielding the Federals. Archer’s men moved forward under musket fire, in only 250 yards lost nearly one-third of their men. Still the men rushed forward alone and drove the Burnside’s Federals from the position. Archer left the ambulance he was riding in and led his troops as they captured McIntosh's guns. This action was Archer's grandest effort and helped to save Lee from being cut off and defeated.
Still sick again the next morning, Archer again turned over the command to Colonel Turney. Archer’s brigade remained in the same position until on the morning of September 19, with Gregg's and Branch's brigades, they formed the rear guard of the army. Archer’s loss in this action was 15 killed and 90 wounded.
However, as the Army of Northern Virginia crossed at Shepardstown, the Federal Army attacked and Archer resumed command. I resumed command of my brigade the evening of September 19. The morning of the 20th, the division moved to repel the enemy crossing the Potomac at the Shepherdstown ferry. The line of battle was formed in a corn-field about three-fourths of a mile back from the ferry. When General Pender had reached about half way to the ferry, General Hill directed Archer to take command of the three remaining brigades [Field's, commanded by Colonel Brockenbrough, on the right; Lane's in the center, and his own, under Colonel Turney on the left] and advance to support Pender.
Archer wrote in his after-battle report: “I moved straight forward until within a few hundred yards of General Pender's brigade, ... The advance of my command was made under the heaviest artillery fire I have ever witnessed. The loss of the brigade was 6 killed and 49 wounded.”
Fredericksburg was Archer’s next battle and he also played a principle part. Ill again, Archer reported for duty on Saturday morning just in time to take control of a dangerous situation for the Confederates. When Hill placed his Division along the Bowling Green Turnpike, as the Confederate right flank, he left a 500-600 yard gap in the line between Archer's left flank and Lane's right. The gap was a marshy-wood that Hill seemed to think the Federals would not or could not pass through to attack. General Meade proved Hill wrong by ordering as many of his troops as possible into the gap. The Pennsylvanian's got into the woods and around Archer's left, attacking the 19th Georgia and the 14th Tennesee in their flank and rear. Both units retreated and lost 160 men captured. Archer sent for M C Gregg to move forward and plug the hole. He also ordered the 5th Alabama, his right flank, to the left to attack the Federals. At the same time, he ordered his men to attack in their front and to drive the Federals back to the railroad, which they managed to do.
The retreat of the 19th Georgia & 14th Tennessee affected the 7th Tennessee, which also began leaving its position. Fortunately, the 1st Tennessee, with the remaining troops of the 7th Tennessee, refused to leave and were then joined by the 5th Alabama. These men managed to drive the Pennsylvanian’s from the gap and back across the railroad tracks. The gap was plugged and the line held. The Confederates were having great success at Marye's Heights, but had Archer's men not retaken the gap, the outcome of the battle could have changed. In his after-action report Major General Jubal Early stated in part:
“ ... I feel it incumbent on me to state that to Brigadier-General Archer, of General A. P. Hill's division, 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, until reenforcements arrived, ... 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."
The Battle of Chancellorsville is remembered most for Robert E Lee dividing his army for a third time. Major General T. Jackson’s remarkable flanking movement that collapsed the Federal right and won the battle of Lee is the most remembered event of that battle. However, during the battle of Chancellorsville, Archer's brigade was at the far right of Jackson's flanking movement and captured the best ground for the Confederate artillery, Hazel Grove, almost accidentally.
Hazel Grove was basically the only high open ground along the Orange Plank Road and was the focal point where the two wings would reunite. During Jackson’s movement, Hazel Grove was occupied by Major General Sickles III Corps, but he’s been ordered to abandon the position by Burnside. Though the movement was to have been done in secret, the men of Huntington’s Battery B, 1st Ohio Light Artillery noticed the Confederates and opened fire. Berdan’s Sharpshooters also joined in the attack? Archer, without waiting for orders to do so from his commanding officers, AP Hill or Jackson, turned his brigade and that of Thomas’ around to repulse the attack. The Federals had already been repulsed and so Archer rejoined the flanking movement, but he missed the opening charges of Jackson’s attack.
Archer, positioned as Jackson’s right flank, was pointed at Hazel Grove and moved out the next morning. H. T. Childs of the 1st Tennessee reported that after his men went about 50 yards, they stopped to dress their lines. “… Then General Archer’s shrill, clear voice was heard along the lines. … ordering the men to fix bayonets.” As the men clambered over the undefended Federal barricade, Archer found himself capturing the “key position” to the battlefield almost without opposition. Sickles largely had abandoned the grove so the Confederates fell upon the remaining Federal units, Huntingtons’ Battery and their supporting troops, Graham’s Brigade. To follow up his easy success, Archer turned his troops to the left to follow the fleeing Federals and ran into the 20th Connecticut and the 14th New York firmly entrenched behind another line of breastworks. Though this was their first combat, the two Federal units held off two assaults by Archer’s men. Archer then fell back to the barricades at Hazel Grove and prepared for a Federal counter-attack while awaiting reinforcements. By about 06:45 AM, the Confederates had massed their guns at Hazel Grove and opened on the Federals. Archer remained in his position without either being attacked or receiving reinforcements until 10:00 am when General Lee arrived. Lee knew the Federals were being driven from south of the plank road and the possession of Hazel Grove signaled the reuniting of his army, so he ordered Archer to attack Fairview, which he now considered the critical site on the battlefield. Archer obeyed and succeeded, which hastened Hooker’s retreat.
Emboldened by the successes at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Lee moved north in June of 1863. Lee had just learned from Longstreet’s spy, Harrison, that the Federal army was moving north across the Potomac River and began concentrating his forces at Gettysburg. Major General A. P. Hill was ill early that morning of July 1, 1863 and General Henry Heth was in charge. Neither Hill nor Heth believed that any Federal units of consequence were opposing them, so early in the morning, Heth ordered Archer forward to brush aside the Federal Cavalry outpost and move into Gettysburg. Archer went forward without skirmishers and made little progress against stubborn resistance from General Buford’s dismounted cavalry. After gaining Herr Ridge at about 09:30am, Heth deployed General Davis north of the Chambersburg Pike and Archer to the south and sent them both forward. Archer protested that he had too few men and would be going too far forward without proper support, but Heth still believed that only a cavalry outpost and some militia unit opposed them and sent them forward.
The day was already getting very warm and water was scarce as Archer and his men moved across the shallow, wooded valley. Archer had been pushing forward without skirmishers until reaching marsh Creek, and then he deployed his troops to the right of the pike and sent out his skirmishers. The men left the cover of the Springs Hotel woods under bombardment from 2, 3-inch rifles form Cutler’s guns, but kept moving. The nature of the terrain disrupted the line of battle as the left flank, the 7th TN, crossed Willoughby Run, now taking heavy fire from Cutler’s Battery at the McPhearson Barn, before the right flank even reached the run. The 14th TN, the next unit in line, instead of supporting the 7th TN, became heavily involved with the 2nd WI and the 7th WI. Then as the 13th AL attempted to capture Calef’s guns [which they failed to do], Reynolds’ men moved to relieve Buford’s weary troopers. Paygals guns were withdrawn, leaving open the flank of the 7th WI, so the 13th AL turned to take advantage. However, the 13th opened its own flank open to attack from the 19th IN, which had just arrived on the field. Also, the Iron Brigade was on the field, driving toward Willoughby Run. Archer’s right flank collapsed, the three regiments retreated down the western slope of McPhearson Ridge and across Willoughby Run.
Archer’s earlier fear of being out beyond proper support had become real. He was forced to surrender, becoming the first general officer captured since Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia. James Archer spent a year in Johnson Island, Ohio, his health deteriorating during this time. He was exchanged in August of 1864 and briefly took command of two brigades. However, he only served two months, dying in Richmond, Virginia, on October 24, 1864, from the effects, it’s suspected, of his imprisonment. Archer was only 46 years old.
The documents written by Archer and those who served with and under him make it rather clear that he was not a “brilliant” leader, in the Lee and Jackson manner, but his men deeply respected and trusted him. On that fateful day in 1863, there had been little he hadn’t encountered and overcome during combat. Archer had even clearly seen the probability of his capture – or worse – in his protest to Heth about attacking without proper support as he went forward. But his capture should not blot out his accomplishments at Seven Days, Second Manassas, Antietam, Shepardstown, the repulse of the Federal breakthrough at Fredericksburg, and the capture of Hazel Grove at Chancelorsville.
published in Battlefield Journal, August, 2006
Confederate Military History
The Southern Historical Society Papers
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
Freeman, Douglas S., Lee's Lieutenant’s
Hennessy, John J., Return to Bull Run; The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas, 1993, Simon and Shuster
Sears, Steven W., The First Day at Gettysburg
Phanz, Harry, Day One at Gettysburg
Coddington, Edward, Gettysburg
Storch, Marc and Beth, “What a Deadly Trap We Were In”: Archer’s Brigade on July 1, 1863, Gettysburg Magazine, January, 1992.