Advertisement
News

Union captures a Harford general

Brig. Gen. James Jay Archer of Harford County descended from a long line of distinguished Marylanders, and at the Battle of Gettysburg he earned his unfortunate place in history.

Archer was a graduate of Princeton, a lawyer and veteran of the Mexican War. And in the opening hours of the fight July 1, 1863, he became the first Confederate general under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee to be captured by Union forces.

Advertisement

As dawn broke that morning, Archer could not have known that he would soon be in the hands of the enemy. As scholar Edwin B. Coddington explains in The Gettysburg Campaign, a Study in Command, "The engagement was an accident. ... Each commander was still feeling his way ... and neither had as yet decided just where or how he would try to meet his foe."

About 5 a.m. July 1, Confederate troops were moving toward Gettysburg on a mission to acquire shoes for the soldiers. This quest for supplies would draw Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's division, followed by the rest of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, into the Battle of Gettysburg, with devastating costs for the Confederates.

Advertisement

With the brigades of Archer and Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Davis out front, Heth led his men to replenish their footwear and possibly feel out the enemy.

While Heth often takes the blame for what happened that day, Archer was just as rash as his commander. Before the troops set out for town, Capt. Louis G. Young, who suspected that the Potomac Army was not far off, approached Archer. Young warned him that a hidden road might mean danger for the brigade's right flank. According to Young's account, Archer simply "listened, believed not, marched on unprepared."

And so the general marched that morning toward Gettysburg and toward capture, and Maryland lost a member of the distinguished Archer family. With his grandfather John and his uncle Stevenson, both having followed their military careers with successful terms in Congress, Archer might have had dreams beyond that of general, but the battle that morning cut them short.

Despite the warnings from Young, the three generals expected to meet little resistance. By dawn, the Confederates had spotted the enemy on Herrs Ridge. Archer and Davis, assuming these troops were a local militia, deployed their skirmishers.

Battle begins

The Union troops, under the direction of Brig. Gen. John Buford, opened fire at 7:30 a.m. The battle of Gettysburg had begun, with the Confederate troops unaware of their precarious position.

The Confederate leaders had mistaken Buford's dismounted cavalry for militia infantry, just as Buford had planned. But the Union had another, more threatening, secret: Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds and the leading elements of the 1st Corps, the Iron Brigade, were only moments from the battlefield.

The fighting between Buford's dismounted cavalry and the brigades of Archer and Davis grew intense. Buford had to hold off Heth until the arrival of the Union army -- victory was totally dependent on the delaying action of these dismounted cavalrymen.

Advertisement

As one member of the Union cavalry recalled:

"Maneuvering with great skill, and fighting with the most conspicuous courage, [Buford's men] succeeded in holding in check a large division of the enemy's infantry, and furnishing what was so much needed, time for the arrival and concentration of [Maj. Gen. George G.] Meade's army in the strong position which it so successfully maintained." (The Gettysburg Papers, Bandy and Freeland, 1978)

Buford's troops fought with desperate valor to hold the line. Archer and Davis eventually pushed the Union forces back to McPherson's Ridge, but there the Union band held firm. Archer had no idea how vulnerable his brigade would soon become.

Fearing that his troops would not last until Reynolds' arrival, Buford decided to secure a second line of defense. In the midst of intense fighting, he ran to the top of a nearby Lutheran seminary for a view of the area. Gazing from the building's roof onto Seminary Ridge, he happily saw the approaching figure of Reynolds. It was 9:45 a.m.

Buford ran from the seminary and met Reynolds on the ground. Reynolds quickly questioned him about his men.

"The Devil's to pay!" Buford shouted back, but assured Reynolds that his line could hold until the Northern troops could get into position. By 10 a.m., members of Reynolds' 1st Corps were in position -- 1,400 men behind him, ready to rush down and meet the 1,130 soldiers of Archer.

Advertisement

It was not the numbers, however, that would determine the outcome. As Coddington concludes, "Heth had the misfortune of meeting one of the crack divisions of the Army of the Potomac, led at the beginning by one of the Union's most outstanding generals. It was here that the element of chance, which often determines the results of an engagement, played its role on July 1st."

Bad luck hit Archer and his men with perfect timing. Just as Buford's men were ready to crumble, Reynolds ordered the Iron Brigade to race down the slope of McPherson's Ridge and penetrate the tree line. Archer's men stood, unknowingly, directly in the path of the corps. Unaware of Reynolds' arrival, Archer had not protected his brigade on all sides. Just as Young had predicted, the right flank was clearly in danger.

The black hats

As Reynolds led his men down the ridge, Archer's brigade spotted the familiar black hats of the Iron Brigade. Clearly, the mission that began as a search for shoes was becoming deadly. This was no local militia or dismounted cavalry -- this was the Army of the Potomac. One of Archer's men was heard to cry out, "That ain't no millishy -- that's them damned black-hatted fellows again!"

Archer's men were experienced soldiers, and while Buford's dismounted cavalry might have fooled them, they knew exactly to whom those black hats belonged. This was an enemy they had not anticipated, and were not equipped to handle. Archer's confused brigade found themselves in hand-to-hand combat. As things began to appear hopeless, Archer tried to retreat back over the ridge. They were quickly split up.

By 10:30 a.m., most of Archer's troops had been captured. Exact numbers are not known, but estimates run as high as 1,000 prisoners of war.

Advertisement

Archer was exhausted and had nowhere to run and no way to regroup. A lieutenant moved forward and took Archer's sword. The unfortunate general was seized by a private and forcibly carried to the rear of the group of prisoners. Here, Archer came face to face with Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday of the Union forces -- a man he knew from his days at West Point.

James Jay Archer and his brother, Robert Harris Archer, were well known at West Point for being the descendants of Revolutionary War heroes and the relatives of a judge and several congressmen. Doubleday approached his old peer with glee. Smiling, the Union general stuck out his hand. "Good morning, Archer! How are you? I am glad to see you!"

Archer gruffly denied the handshake and retorted back, "Well, I am not glad to see you, by a damned sight." Archer stood before his old schoolmate and was now officially the first general captured under Lee's watchful command.

While things looked grim for the Confederates at Herrs Ridge, the Union suffered losses as well. At 10:45 a.m., a single shot to the head killed Reynolds. Undaunted, both sides continued the battle. What little remained of Archer's brigade was led by Col. Birkett D. Fry and retreated back over Herr's Ridge.

The Union, however, was not assured victory. While Archer's men were finished, the brigade of Davis continued to put up great resistance. Davis' men were battling with the Iron Brigade of Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler, and Cutler needed help.

Fortunately for the Union, assistance came quickly. Once Archer's men were dispensed with, Doubleday could afford to send help. Doubleday sent 450 of his men under Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes. By 11:30 a.m., most of Davis' men had been driven down into a steep depression between Seminary Ridge and McPherson's Woods.

Advertisement

Almost 300 men were taken as prisoners of war, and the rest were forced to withdraw. It was now noon. For the next two hours, the fighting lulled.

Both sides suffered great losses, but the Confederacy had taken the worst. Archer was taken to a prison camp at Johnson's Island in Ohio. He communicated through a paroled prisoner, telling the Confederates that rescue from the island would be impossible.

Eventually, Archer was freed in a prisoner exchange. He once again took his post as general and commanded his old brigade in August 1864, but the return was short-lived. The general died Oct. 24, 1864, from wounds and the effects of imprisonment.

Karen Rivers is a senior majoring in journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.


Advertisement