Hugh Mercer

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Hugh Mercer
Hugh Mercer[1]
Born(1726-01-16)16 January 1726
Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Died12 January 1777(1777-01-12) (aged 50)
Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.
Place of burial
Allegiance Jacobites
 Great Britain
 United States
Service/branch Jacobite Army
Pennsylvania Militia
Continental Army
Years of serviceJacobite Army (1745–1746)
Pennsylvania Militia (1755–1776)
Continental Army (1776–1777)
RankBrigadier general (Continental Army)
Alma materUniversity of Aberdeen
RelationsHugh W. Mercer (grandson)
Johnny Mercer and George S. Patton (great-great-great grandsons)
Other workSurgeon, apothecary

Hugh Mercer (16 January 1726 – 12 January 1777) was a brigadier general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He fought in the New York and New Jersey campaign and was mortally wounded at the Battle of Princeton.

He was born in Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, Scotland and studied medicine at the University of Aberdeen. He served as an assistant surgeon in Charles Edward Stuart's army during the Battle of Culloden in the Jacobite rising of 1745. After the failed uprising, Mercer escaped to the Province of Pennsylvania.

He lived in Greencastle, Pennsylvania (now known as Mercersburg, Pennsylvania) and Fredericksburg, Virginia, worked as a physician and established an apothecary. He served alongside George Washington in the provincial troops during the French and Indian War and they became close friends.

Early life and education[edit]

Mercer was born on January 16, 1726 in Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, Scotland[2] to Ann Monro and the Reverend William Mercer, a minister in the Church of Scotland.[3] At 15, he began studying medicine at the University of Aberdeen's Marischal College, and graduated as a physician in 1744.[4] He served as an assistant surgeon in the army of Charles Edward Stuart during the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and was present at the Battle of Culloden when Charles' army was defeated on 16 April 1746.[5] As a fugitive in his homeland in 1747, Mercer fled Scotland after months in hiding.[6] In the Fall of 1746, he departed Leith by ship and sailed to Philadelphia. He settled in Pennsylvaniva near Greencastle, now known as Mercersburg, and practiced medicine as a physician and apothecary[7] for eight years.[8]

French and Indian War[edit]

Kentucky land grant to heirs of Hugh Mercer for service of George Weedon during the French and Indian War. Signed by Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson in 1780

Although Mercer opposed the British in the Jacobite Rising of 1745, he fought with the British during the French and Indian War.[9] In 1755, Mercer served as a captain in General Edward Braddock's army in his failed attempt to take Fort Duquesne. He was wounded in the arm[10] during the battle and left behind in the scramble to retreat. He was able to rejoin his troops and continued to treat wounded soldiers.[11] In March 1756, he was commissioned a captain in a Pennsylvania regiment,[12] and accompanied Lt. Col. John Armstrong in the Kittanning Expedition in September 1756.[13]

In one of the confrontations with Native Americans, Mercer was badly wounded and separated from his unit. He trekked 100 miles (160 km) through the woods for 14 days, injured and with no supplies, until he found his way back to Fort Cumberland.[14] In 1757, he was placed in charge of the garrison at Shippensburg and promoted to Major.[13] It was during this period that Mercer developed a lifelong friendship with George Washington.[15]

Both Washington and Mercer served in the Forbes Expedition under British General John Forbes during the second attempt to capture Fort Duquesne.[13] Forbes occupied the burned fort on 25 November 1758. Forbes immediately ordered the construction of a new fortification to be named Fort Pitt, after British Secretary of State William Pitt the Elder. He also named the settlement between the rivers "Pittsburgh", modern Pittsburgh.[16]

Fredericksburg Virginia[edit]

At the recommendation of Washington, Mercer moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia[15] in 1760 to practice medicine after the war. He befriended another Scottish ex-patriot, John Paul Jones.[17] Mercer became a noted member and businessman in town, buying land and involving himself in local trade. He married Isabella Gordon and started a family.[9] He became a member of the Fredericksburg Masonic Lodge in 1767. Washington, who was also a member of this lodge, later became President, and at least eight members were generals of the American Revolution (Washington, Mercer, George Weedon, William Woodford, Fielding Lewis, Thomas Posey, Gustavus Wallace, and the Marquis de Lafayette, who was honorary in 1824) – far more than any other group, institution or organization save the pre-Revolution British Army. This lodge is still in existence today.[18]

Hugh Mercer Apothecary in Fredericksburg, Virginia

Soon afterward, Mercer opened a physician's apothecary and practice.[19] His apothecary in Fredericksburg, Virginia is now a museum.[20] George Washington's mother, Mary Washington, became one of Mercer's patients, and Mercer prospered as a respected doctor in the area. Mercer married Isabella Gordon and together they had five children: Ann Mercer Patton, John Mercer, William Mercer, George Weedon Mercer, and Hugh Tennant Mercer.[21] In 1774, George Washington sold Ferry Farm, his childhood home, to Mercer, who wanted to make this prized land into a town where he and his family would settle for the remainder of his days.[22]

During 1775, Mercer was a member of the Fredericksburg Committee of Safety, and on 25 April, he was one of the members of the Independent Company of the Town of Fredericksburg who sent a letter of concern to Colonel Washington when the British removed gunpowder from the magazine at Williamsburg. In an August vote, Mercer was excluded from the elected leadership of the new regiments formed by the Virginia Convention because he was a "northern Briton",[23] but on 12 September, he was elected Colonel of the Minute Men of Spotsylvania, King George, Stafford, and Caroline Counties.[24]

On 17 November 1775, Mercer was one of 21 members chosen for the Committee of Safety of Spotsylvania County. On 10 January 1776, Mercer was appointed colonel to what soon became the 3rd Virginia Regiment of the Virginia Line,[25] and the next day, George Weedon was appointed lieutenant colonel.[26] Future president James Monroe and future Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall also served as officers under his command. On June 5, 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.[27]

American Revolution[edit]

Mercer was placed in charge of a large troop of Pennsylvania Militia stationed in Paulus Hook, New Jersey to protect from potential attack from British troops in Staten Island.[28]

Before the New York City Campaign, Washington had ordered two forts built to repel the Royal Navy. On the New York side of the Hudson River, Fort Washington was constructed, and Mercer himself oversaw the building of the earthen fortification on the New Jersey side, named Fort Lee.[29] The British captured Fort Washington on 16 November 1776, and the Americans abandoned Fort Lee four days later.[30] The retreat to New Jersey became known as "the Crisis of the Revolution", because the enlistments of most of Washington's soldiers ended on New Year's Day 1777.[31]

Mercer led a raid on Richmondtown, Staten Island on October 15, 1776, temporarily securing the town and taking as prisoners those inside the makeshift hospital of St. Andrew's Church, only to be later repelled back to New Jersey, releasing the prisoners and causing numerous British casualties in the process.[32]

Some historical accounts credit Mercer with the suggestion for George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River which surprised the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776.[33] The victory at Trenton (and a small monetary bonus) made Washington's men agree to a ten-day extension to their enlistment. When Washington decided to face off with Cornwallis during the Second Battle of Trenton on January 2, 1777, Mercer was given a major role in the defense of the city.[34]


The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777 by John Trumbull. George Washington is the figure on the horse.

The next day, January 3, 1777, Washington's army was en route to Princeton, New Jersey. While leading a vanguard of 350 soldiers, Mercer's brigade encountered two British regiments and a mounted unit. A fight broke out at an orchard grove and Mercer's horse was shot from under him. Getting to his feet, he was quickly surrounded by British troops who mistook him for George Washington and ordered him to surrender. Outnumbered, he drew his saber and began an unequal contest. He was finally beaten to the ground, bayoneted seven times, and left for dead.[35]

When he learned of the British attack and saw some of Mercer's men in retreat, Washington himself entered the fray. Washington rallied Mercer's men and pushed back the British regiments, but Mercer had been left on the field to die with multiple bayonet wounds to his body and blows to his head. Legend has it that a beaten Mercer, with a bayonet still impaled in him, did not want to leave his men and the battle and was given a place to rest on a white oak tree's trunk, and those who remained with him stood their ground. The tree became known as "the Mercer Oak" and is the key element of the seal of Mercer County, New Jersey.[36]

Mercer Memorial at the Thomas Clarke House in Princeton, New Jersey where he was treated after being bayonetted by British troops at the Battle of Princeton
Mercer's remains were reinterred from Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia to Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1840. A monument was funded by the Saint Andrew's Society

When he was discovered, Mercer was carried to the field hospital in the Thomas Clarke House (now a museum) at the eastern end of the battlefield. Benjamin Rush cared for Mercer and other wounded troops. Rush was assisted in caring for the wounded by Quakers. Local Quakers continued to care for wounded troops from both Continental and British forces, after the Continental Army moved North. The Quaker meeting house is adjacent to the property now known as Princeton Battlefield State Park. Medical efforts were made by Rush to save Mercer,[37] but he was mortally wounded and died nine days later, on January 12, 1777. He was initially interred in the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia and reinterred to Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1840[38] with a monument funded by the Saint Andrew's Society.[8]

Because of Mercer's courage and sacrifice, Washington proceeded into Princeton and defeated the British forces there. He then moved and quartered his forces to Morristown in victory.[39] Because of those victories, most of Washington's army re-enlisted, the French finally approved arms and supplies to the Americans and a stunned Cornwallis pulled his forces back to New York to reassess the surprising American successes. The "crisis" had ended, America had the means to fight, and British public support for the war slowly began to wane.

John Trumbull used Mercer's son, Hugh Jr., as a model for his painting The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777.[40] A portrait by Charles Willson Peale entitled Washington at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777 displays Washington in the foreground with Hugh Mercer lying mortally wounded in the background, supported by Dr. Benjamin Rush and Major George Lewis holding the American flag. This portrait is the prize possession of Princeton University. James Peale painted a version of "Battle of Princeton" whose background shows a very indistinct portrait of Mercer being helped from the ground.[41]


Succeeding generations of Mercer's family have distinguished themselves. Famous direct descendants of Hugh Mercer were his grandson Virginia governor John Mercer Patton, his sons Confederate Lt. Col Waller T. Patton and Col. George Smith Patton, who in turn was an ancestor of General George S. Patton, Jr. Other direct descendants include another grandson Confederate General Hugh Weedon Mercer (CSA), songwriter Johnny Mercer, and Sergeant Christopher Mercer Lowe (US Army).[42]

Descendants of Hugh Mercer
Notable descendants of Hugh Mercer
Reverend William Mercer
Hugh Mercer
Hugh Tennant Weedon MercerAnn Gordon Mercer
Hugh Weedon MercerJohn M. Patton
George Anderson Mercer (1835-1907)George S. Patton Sr.Waller T. Patton
George Anderson Mercer (1869-1940)George S. Patton Jr.
Johnny MercerGen. George S. Patton

In popular culture[edit]

In the Broadway musical Hamilton, General Mercer is referenced by Aaron Burr in the song "The Room Where It Happens": "Did ya hear the news about good old General Mercer? You know Clermont Street? They renamed it after him. The Mercer legacy is secure."[43]

Hugh Mercer is referenced in the A. W. Burns/George W. Hewitt song "America Shall Aye Be Free".[44]

In the 2000 television film The Crossing, a dramatization of Washington's crossing of the Delaware and the battle of Trenton, Mercer is played by Roger Rees.[45]





  1. ^ Note this image of General Hugh Mercer (1726-1777) is erroneously labeled as Nova Scotia Governor Peregrine Hopson in the Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society. Vol. XVI. Halifax: Wm. Macnab & Son. 1912. p. 1.
  2. ^ "General Hugh Mercer, January 16, 1726 - January 12, 1777". R.Squared Communication, LLC. Retrieved 14 June 2023.
  3. ^ Goolrick 1906, p. 12.
  4. ^ Goolrick 1906, p. 13.
  5. ^ Goolrick 1906, p. 14.
  6. ^ "Hugh Mercer". American Battlefield Trust. Retrieved 14 June 2023.
  7. ^ Goolrick 1906, p. 23.
  8. ^ a b c MacDougall, Donald John (1917). Scots and Scots' Descendants in America, Volume 1. Caledonian Publishing Company. pp. 39–40. Retrieved 11 June 2023.
  9. ^ a b "The Tale of Two Mercers". American Battlefield Trust. Retrieved 18 June 2023.
  10. ^ Lossing, John Benson. Potter's American Monthly; an illustrated magazine of history, literature, science, and art. Philadelphia: John E. Potter and Company. p. 70. Retrieved 3 July 2023.
  11. ^ Goolrick 1906, p. 26.
  12. ^ Goolrick 1906, p. 27.
  13. ^ a b c Goolrick 1906, p. 28.
  14. ^ Goolrick 1906, pp. 27–28.
  15. ^ a b Goolrick 1906, pp. 28–29.
  16. ^ Lorant, Stefan (1999). Pittsburgh, The Story of an American City. Larsen's Outdoor Publishing. p. 103. ISBN 978-0967410302.
  17. ^ Goolrick 1906, p. 30.
  18. ^ "History of Lodge 4". Fredericksburg Masonic Lodge #4. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
  19. ^ Goolrick 1906, p. 31.
  20. ^ "Hugh Mercer Apothecary". APVA Preservation Virginia. Archived from the original on 6 March 2008. Retrieved 4 March 2008.
  21. ^ Goolrick 1906, pp. 105–106.
  22. ^ * Levy, Philip (2013). Where the Cherry Tree Grew, The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington's Boyhood Home. Macmillan. p. 85. ISBN 978-1-2500-2314-8.
  23. ^ Goolrick 1906, p. 40.
  24. ^ Goolrick 1906, p. 42.
  25. ^ Goolrick 1906, pp. 41–42.
  26. ^ Goolrick 1906, p. 38.
  27. ^ Goolrick 1906, pp. 45–47.
  28. ^ Goolrick 1906, pp. 47–48.
  29. ^ Kwasny 1996, p. 72.
  30. ^ Kwasny 1996, p. 83.
  31. ^ Kwasny 1996, pp. 84–85.
  32. ^ Morris, Ira K. (1898). Morris's Memorial HIstory of Staten Island, New York, Volume 1. New York: Memorial Publishing Company. pp. 219–220. Retrieved 12 June 2023.
  33. ^ Goolrick 1906, pp. 48–49.
  34. ^ Stryker, William S. (1898). The Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 304.
  35. ^ Kwasny 1996, pp. 103–104.
  36. ^ Mark Mayo Boatner (1975). Landmarks of the American Revolution: a guide to locating and knowing what happened at the sites of independence. Hawthorn Books. p. 207. ISBN 9780801543906.
  37. ^ Atkinson, Rick (2019). The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777. Henry Holt and Company. Retrieved 12 June 2023.
  38. ^ Yaster, Carol; Wolgemuth, Rachel (2017). Laurel Hill Cemetery. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. p. 25. ISBN 978-1-4671-2655-7. Retrieved 11 June 2023.
  39. ^ Fischer, David Hackett (2006). Washington's Crossing. Oxford University Press. p. 342. ISBN 0-19-518159-X.
  40. ^ "Hugh Mercer, Jr. (Study for "The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777")". The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  41. ^ Site of Moulder's Battery
  42. ^ Lowe, Christopher. "Descendant of a north-east born American war hero returns for Fraserburgh exhibit". The Press and Journal. Archived from the original on 1 November 2013. Retrieved 6 August 2018.
  43. ^ "The Official Page For The Music of Hamilton: The Musical". Archived from the original on 4 October 2015.
  44. ^ Burns, A.W. "America Shall Aye Be Free! National Song & Chorus". Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved 3 July 2023.
  45. ^ "The Crossing (TV Movie 2000)"., Inc. Retrieved 16 June 2023.
  46. ^ Lee, Francis Bazley (1907). Genealogical and Personal Memorial of Mercer County New Jersey. New York: The Lewis Publishing Company. p. 125. Retrieved 15 June 2023.
  47. ^ Kenny, Hamill (1945). West Virginia Place Names: Their Origin and Meaning, Including the Nomenclature of the Streams and Mountains. Piedmont, WV: The Place Name Press. p. 410.
  48. ^ Lee, Francis Bazley (1907). Genealogical and Personal Memorial of Mercer County New Jersey. New York: The Lewis Publishing Company. p. 128. Retrieved 15 June 2023.
  49. ^ a b c d e Gannett, Henry (1905). The origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. p. 205. Retrieved 18 June 2023.
  50. ^ The Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society, Volume 1. Kentucky State Historical Society. 1903. p. 36.
  51. ^ "Maine an Encyclopedia - Mercer". Publius Research. Retrieved 18 June 2023.
  52. ^ a b "Hugh Mercer's Fredericksburg". American Battlefield Trust. Retrieved 3 July 2023.
  53. ^ Feirstein, Sanna (2001). Naming New York: Manhattan Places & How They Got Their Names. New York: New York University Press. p. 70. ISBN 0-8147-2711-5. Retrieved 3 July 2023.
  54. ^ "Historic Buildings of the University of Mary Washington". Retrieved 3 July 2023.


External links[edit]