Fletcher Harris Archer was born on February 6, 1817, in Petersburg, one of the youngest of five sons and four daughters of Allen Archer, a prosperous miller, and Prudence Whitworth Archer. He attended school in Petersburg before entering the University of Virginia, where he received his bachelor of law degree on July 3, 1841. He then returned to his native city and established his practice.
On April 2, 1842, Archer was elected captain of the 7th Company, 39th Virginia Militia Regiment. He held that rank in December 1846, when he raised the Petersburg Mexican Volunteers, which became Company E of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Regiment. His was one of the few Virginia units that saw active military service during the Mexican War. The regiment reached Mexico early in 1847 and served on General Zachary Taylor‘s line until the end of the war. By August 1, 1848, the company was back in Petersburg, where Archer resumed his law practice. He married Eliza Ann Eppes Allen and they had one daughter, born shortly before her mother’s death in April 1851.
Within two days offrom the Union, Archer raised a company of one hundred men that was designated Company K, “Archer Rifles,” 12th Virginia Infantry Regiment. He was elected its . Shortly thereafter, on May 5, 1861, he was appointed lieutenant colonel in the 3rd Virginia Infantry Regiment. After brief intervals of service in command of the Naval Hospital in Norfolk, as lieutenant colonel of the 5th Battalion Virginia Infantry, and as commander of the 1st Brigade, Department of Norfolk, Archer retired in May 1862 to civilian life in . On March 31, 1863, he married Martha Georgianna Morton Barksdale, a widow with three sons and one daughter.
As the armies moved ever closer to the-Petersburg front, Archer again offered his military expertise to the Confederacy. On May 4, 1864, he was commissioned a major commanding the 3rd, or “Archer’s Battalion,” Virginia Reserves. Composed of men between the ages of sixteen and eighteen and between forty-five and fifty-five from Petersburg and the counties of Dinwiddie and Prince George, the reserves were to be used for state defense and detail duty. They participated in Archer’s greatest military accomplishment, his defense of Petersburg on June 9, 1864, in what has come to be called the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys.
As more than 1,300 Union cavalry troops led by Brigadier General August Kautz attempted to ride into Petersburg from the south and Union infantry threatened the defenses east of the city, 125 members of Archer’s unit and 5 men and one gun from an artillery unit answered a call for reserves and militia to assemble at Battery 29 on the Jerusalem Plank Road. Later Archer recalled that details for special service and guard duty in Richmond had left him with barely a company of inadequately armed men in civilian clothes, combining those “with head silvered o’er with the frosts of advancing years” and others who “could scarcely boast of the down upon the cheek.” His command repelled the first attack by the Northern troops but a second assault forced him back into the city. The arrival of Confederate cavalry and artillery put a check to further Union movement, but at the cost of 76 casualties to the reserves, more than half of those who had gone into action.
Promoted to lieutenant colonel, Archer led his unit in the defense of Petersburg during the subsequent Union attack of June 15–18 and throughout theof the city. Wounded in the arm at Petersburg, he was hit again during the retreat to Appomattox, where his combined force of the 3rd and 44th Battalions of Virginia Reserves surrendered sixty-five men.
After the war ended Archer returned to Petersburg and began to rebuild his law practice. Active in the local Conservative Party, he eventually became its chairman. He sought the party’s nomination for mayor in 1876 and 1878 but lost both times to William E. Cameron, who had aligned himself with thebefore the second campaign. In 1879 Archer and tobacconist Charles A. Jackson were the Conservative nominees for seats in the House of Delegates, but both lost as the Readjusters carried the city with 55 percent of the vote.
Following this defeat Archer was elected to the Petersburg City Council and his fellow councillors elected him president of that body. By virtue of this position Archer became mayor on January 2, 1882, when Cameron was sworn in as governor. At this point the council still had a Conservative majority, but the Readjusters controlled all of the elective executive offices in Petersburg except the mayor’s office and vowed to oust Archer in the May 1882 election.
To counter a Readjuster–Fusionist Republican coalition, the Conservatives formed an alliance with the Straightout Republicans and ran as the Citizens’ Party. Archer received their nomination for mayor but lost to Thomas J. Jarratt, and the Readjusters won a narrow majority on the city council. The Conservatives then tried to keep the Readjusters from taking their seats by alleging a violation of the city charter, and on July 1 Archer refused to vacate his office at the end of his term. He did not finally step down as mayor until a lawsuit confirmed Jarratt in the office on March 23, 1883.
In 1884 Archer was a delegate to the state Democratic convention in Richmond and tried to encourage dissident white Readjusters to rejoin the Democratic Party. He did not run for another public office thereafter. Archer died at his home on High Street on August 21, 1902, after having been in “feeble health by reason of his advanced age for some months.” He was interred in Petersburg’s Blandford Cemetery.