Hugh Mercer, an Aberdeenshire-born Brigadier-General in the American army, died on the 12th of January, 1777.
Many Scotsmen played a significant part in the American War of Independence, otherwise known as the Revolution that resulted in the separation of the North American Colonies. Four of George Washington’s Major-Generals and nine of his Brigadier-Generals were of Scots descent. Of his other Generals, twenty were of Scottish blood. Amongst those was Aberdeenshire’s Hugh Mercer, surgeon, Scottish Rebel, emigrant, exile, physician, indian fighter and American soldier, who became one of Washington’s Brigadier-Generals and a Revolutionary War hero.
Mercer’s military service and exploits spanned two continents and three separate armies. Beginning as a surgeon for the doomed Jacobite army at Culloden, Dr. Mercer became a wanted man and fled to freedom in America, where he took part in the ‘Seven Years’ War’ in the army of his former enemy, the Hanoverian George III. Later, after settling as a physician in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Mercer signed up for the third time, joining Washington’s Continental Army. Hugh Mercer became a friend to George Washington and one of his greatest Generals. Mercer was the man whose military genius conceived the plan for the crossing of the Delaware River and the capture of the Hessians at Trenton, in one of the definitive battles of the American War of Independence.
Mercer died from the bayonet wounds he received just prior to the Battle of Princeton, but historians and many biographers argue that, had it not been for his untimely death, Mercer would have gone on to have become an even greater leader than Washington proved to be; perhaps to rank as one of the greatest American heroes of all time. Trenton and Princeton were battles critical to American history as lacking those victories, Washington would have lost the War. According to Genevieve Bugay, Site Manager of the ‘Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop in Fredericksburg as reported in the Press & Journal of the 29th of March, 2005, “Washington made [Mercer] a Brigadier-General at the start of the Revolutionary War and he was so highly respected as a soldier that many people feel he was as good a General as Washington, if not better.”
Undoubtedly, Hugh Mercer has hero status in America. Mercersburg, in Pennsylvania is named after him and there are Mercer Counties in his honour in seven US States. Statues of him have been erected in Philadelphia and his adopted city of Fredericksburg, where the aforementioned Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop is preserved and run as a historic site. A monument to his memory was erected by the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Not bad for a wee loon frae rural Aberdeenshire, who having fled from persecution after on rebellion said in 1776 prior to another, “I am willing to serve my adopted country in any capacity she may need me.”
Hugh Mercer was born in the Manse of Pitsligo Parish Kirk, near the fishing village of Rosehearty, on the 17th of January, 1726. Hugh grew up Rosehearty and at the age of fifteen, went on to study medicine in Marischal College at the University of Aberdeen. In 1745, a year after graduating as a Doctor, Mercer joined Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army in which he served an assistant surgeon. He was present at the Battle of Culloden on the 16th of April, 1746, when the Jacobites were defeated, and as the survivors were being hunted down and killed, Mercer became a fugitive in his own land. He spent a year in hiding, on the run from Government soldiers, and eventually managed to buy passage on a ship sailing to America, where he pitched up in Pennsylvania, in March of 1747.
He practiced medicine in what is now Mercersburg, quite peacefully, for eight years until after the outbreak of the French and Indian wars in 1754. When General Braddock’s army was butchered by the French and Indians in 1755, Mercer tended the wounded and the following year, in a pragmatic move that had more to do with self preservation than any notion of loyalty, enlisted in the army of the same King he had sought to overthrow. Serving as a soldier instead of a surgeon, he was commissioned a Captain in a Pennsylvania regiment. He joined Lt. Col. Armstrong’s expedition of 1756, during which he took part in the raid on the Indian village of Kittanning, in the September. Captain Mercer was badly injured in the attack, but the heroic Scot set his own shattered arm and managed to trek one hundred miles, through fourteen days alone on foot and unaided, to the safety of Fort Shirley. He had been given up for dead and his survival made the headlines in the Pennsylvania Gazette. His bravery was recognised and he rose to the rank of Colonel.
It was during the Seven Years’ War that Mercer first met Washington and, in 1760, both men settled in Fredericksburg, which was recommended to Mercer as being “likely to afford a genteel subsistence in the [practice of Physick],” according to a letter he wrote in February of 1761. Mercer was described as “a physician of great merit and eminence” and in 1774, he purchased Ferry Farm, Washington’s childhood home. Shortly after, when the Colonies rebelled, Mercer ‘changed sides again’ and, by January, 1776, he had become a full Colonel and commander of the 3rd Virginia Regiment of the Line. Later, in June of 1776, at Washington’s personal request, Mercer was promoted to Brigadier-General. After the British captured Forts Washington and Lee, Mercer joined Washington in the retreat to New Jersey and, thanks in no small measure to Mercer, Washington’s men crossed the Delaware and, on the 26th of December, 1776, won the Battle of Trenton.
On the 3rd of January, 1777, the day after the Second Battle of Trenton, whilst leading the vanguard en route to Princeton, Mercer got into a fight with two British regiments and became isolated in an orange grove, with his horse shot from under him. Mercer was surrounded and mistaken for Washington by the British troops, but refused to surrender. Drawing his sabre, he stood his ground against the odds, but was mortally wounded, suffering a total of seven bayonet wounds and numerous blows to the head from musket butts. His men rallied, while he lay propped up against ‘the Mercer Oak’, before being carried to the field hospital. Despite the efforts of his medical colleague, Benjamin Rush, Mercer could not be saved. Hugh Mercer from Pitsligo died of his wounds, three thousand miles from home and on the 12th of January, 1777, nine days after the Patriots won the Battle of Princeton. His funeral in Philadelphia was attended by more than 30,000 mourners.