John Garland James, Confederate soldier, college professor, writer, and banker, son of Henry and Eliza Maria (Wills) James, was born at Chatham, Fluvanna County, Virginia, on December 1, 1844. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute with second honors on July 4, 1866. During his college career he served in the Confederate Army, acting as color guard and third corporal in the battle of New Market and fighting in the intermediate lines when Richmond was evacuated in 1865. In 1866–67 he was a professor at Kentucky Military Institute. In 1867 the family moved to Bastrop, Texas, where James was president of Texas Military Institute in 1868. He was superintendent, business manager, and professor of philosophy and mathematics; his father and brothers, Charles and Fleming Wills James, assisted him in the enterprise. He moved his school to Austin and conducted it there from 1870 through 1879. After 1875 he was for a number of years a member of the board of visitors of the United States Naval Academy.
About the middle of the 1870s James conceived the idea of bringing out a school reader and speaker to be made up exclusively of poems and prose (including speeches) by Southern authors and orators. The result was The Southern Student's Hand-Book of Selections for Reading and Oratory, published by A. S. Barnes and Company in 1879. A revised edition came out less than a year later. Work on this book brought James into correspondence with numerous writers all over the South, including Sidney Lanier and Paul Hamilton Hayne.
James became president of Texas A&M in November 1879 and held the office until he resigned on April 1, 1883, to join his brother, Fleming, in a bank that they had organized at Colorado, Texas. On February 6, 1883, James married Clara White (Brigham) Trowbridge of Detroit. She had two daughters by her first marriage. By 1884 James was in Wichita Falls as president of the Panhandle National Bank, which he had organized. After a brief return to Austin, he lived from 1900 to 1929 in Roff, Oklahoma. About 1906 he began to focus on mortgages and real estate. He went to Dallas for medical attention in 1929 and, after an extended illness, died there on February 11, 1930. Two days later he was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Austin.