Brigadier General Hugh Mercer – His Place In History

“He bravely gave his life for his new country and gave his brave new country life”

Hugh Mercer – Physician, Surgeon, friend of George Washington and Brigadier General in the Continental Army, where he gave his life in the Battle of Princeton. He is also the namesake to 6 counties throughout the country and ancestor of General George S. Patton. His history is below, pens made from his famous namesake tree can be found here.

Born in Scotland in January 1726 to a Presbyterian Minister, Reverend William Mercer, and Ann Monro. At age 15 he entered the University of Aberdeen and studied medicine. At age 20 he served as assistant surgeon in the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie to restore the Stuart Kings to the thrones of England and Scotland. This movement was crushed and the survivors hunted down and killed by the English army. The young Mercer went into hiding and escaped to America. He settled near what is now Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and practiced medicine for 8 years.

At age 29 he joined the very army that had been hunting him to render medical aid and fight in the French and Indian war. Here he met a young volunteer officer named George Washington. Fourteen months later, Captain Mercer was badly wounded and separated from his unit. He walked, injured and with no supplies through the woods for 14 days and 100 miles, until he found his way back to fort Shirley. He grew in rank to Colonel.

His friendship with George Washington and several other Virginians also grew. In 1760 he moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he opened a physician’s apothecary and medical practice. Mary Washington, George Washington’s mother, became one of his patients and in 1774 he purchased Ferry Farm, Washington’s childhood home. Comfortable in his practice he married Isabella Gordon and had 5 Children.

In June of 1776, Mercer received a letter from the Continental Congress, signed by John Hancock, appointing him Brigadier General in the Armies of the United Colonies and requesting him to report to headquarters in New York immediately. There Washington ordered two forts built on either side of the Hudson River to repel the British Navy. Mercer oversaw the building of the fortification on the New Jersey side, named Fort Lee, while Fort Washington was built on the New York side.

On November 16 the vastly outnumbered Americans lost Fort Washington, 2818 men, and a large store of supplies. Fort Lee was abandoned 4 days later as the large British force approached. During the retreat across New Jersey, Washington’s forces dwindled as enlistments expired and whole militia just marched home, along with increased desertions. An even larger portion of his beleaguered force would be free to go on January 1st.

Washington and his men crossed the Delaware River and took refuge in Pennsylvania, but all indications were that the cause was lost, even Washington thought the game was up – unless some great success could be had – and quickly. Washington and his war counsel designed a daring and improbable plan.

On Christmas night, about 2400 men with cannon and horses crossed the ice-filled Delaware River, and in the morning surprised, and defeated the Hessian garrison at Trenton. When Washington decided to face off with Cornwallis and his large force, at the Second Battle of Trenton, January 2nd, Mercer was given a major role in the defense of the town.

The next day as Washington’s army approached the town of Princeton, what appeared to be a small patrol of British was spotted. Mercer and 320 men were dispatched to investigate and stop them. It was not a British patrol, but a mounted unit and 2 British regiments on their way to reinforce Cornwallis in Trenton. Both sides fired at each other and Mercer’s horse was shot from under him. The British charge with bayonets routing many Americans and engaging in bloody hand-to-hand combat with the remainder. When Mercer got to his feet, British officers, who may have mistaken him for George Washington, quickly surrounded him and ordered him to surrender. The Scotsman, outnumbered, drew his saber and began an unequal contest. He was finally beaten to the ground by saber, musket, and bayonet. The now mortally wounded Mercer, and a few of his men moved about 500 feet to a barn with an old oak tree next to it, which he used to stand against, while his remaining men defended this position. This tree became known as The Mercer Oak. When Washington heard of the attack and saw some of Mercer’s men in retreat, he himself entered the fray along with a large number of his main force, rallying Mercers men and pushing back the British. As the British began to rout, Washington disappeared into the gun smoke between the lines shouting, “This is a fine fox hunt boys.” The Battle of Princeton lasted less than an hour but is said to have been one of the most savage of the entire war. However, in those three battles victory was snatched from certain defeat.

Washington’s friend, Brigadier General Hugh Mercer was taken to the Clark house (still standing on Princeton Battlefield Park) where Declaration of Independence signer Dr. Benjamin Rush tended to his wounds. Nine days after the battle Doctor and Brigadier General Hugh Mercer passed into history. His service and sacrifice to his adopted country, a legacy shared by many.