James Jay Archer, lawyer, Mexican War veteran, and Confederate brigadier general, was born on December 19, 1817, in Bel Air, Maryland, son of John and Ann (Stump) Archer. In 1835 he graduated from Princeton and later attended Bacon College in Georgetown. Archer then attended the University of Maryland where he studied law. He practiced law in Maryland. At the outbreak of war with Mexico he volunteered for service and served as a captain. He participated in the battle of Chapultepec and was cited for bravery in battle resulting in his promotion to major. After the Mexican War, he lived in Texas. In 1848 he was wounded in a duel with Andrew Porter. He moved back to Maryland and resumed his law practice.
Archer decided to rejoin the United States Army, and in 1855 he entered as a captain of the Ninth U.S. Infantry. He spent much of his career on the Pacific coast, mainly in the Northwest. He remained in the army until 1861 when the Civil War began. Archer resigned his post with the U.S. Army and immediately joined the Confederate Army. On May 14, 1861, he became a captain in the Provisional Army of the Confederacy. He was quickly promoted to colonel of the Fifth Texas Infantry on October 2, 1862. He fought in the battles of Eltham's Landing on May 7, 1862, and Seven Pines on May 31–June1, 1862. He commanded the Texas Brigade for a month after Louis Wigfall resigned.
On June 3, 1862, he was made brigadier general and was transferred to lead a brigade of Tennessee soldiers. Of this change one of his men, Robert Campbell said, "we had lost our brave and well loved colonel—JJ Archer…." Campbell further wrote that Archer had tears in his eyes and was speechless at the show of emotion from his troops. He remembered Archer as "brave—generous and kind and a strict disciplinarian. The men loved him…."
Under the leadership of Archer, the Tennessee Brigade fought at Antietam (Sharpsburg). On September 17, 1862, he and his men were part of the counterattack that drove the Union Army back from the city. He went on to lead the brigade at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. During the battle of Gettysburg he was captured, having the distinction of being the first general to be captured after Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia. He was imprisoned at Johnson's Island in Ohio. He was part of a prisoner exchange in the late summer of 1864 and was directed to take the command of his and of Walker's Brigades. The effects of imprisonment and the harshness of the battle near Peebles' Farm, September 30–October 2, 1864, weakened his health. He died on October 24, 1864, in Richmond, Virginia, and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. Archer never married.