Gen. Huge Mercer

"In Any Rank or Station": the life of General Hugh Mercer

by Todd Wilkinson

While many Americans are aware that the “father” of the US Navy, John Paul Jones, was a Scot, America’s other “Scottish rebel” during the War for Independence, General Hugh Mercer, is largely forgotten about today.

Mercer was born on January 17, 1726 in the village of Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, to William Mercer a Presbyterian minister, and Ann Monro. He attended Marischal College in Aberdeen, where he studied medicine, and served as an assistant surgeon with Jacobite forces under Prince Charles Edward Stewart at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Ironically, Mercer’s grandfather, Sir Robert Munro, was an officer in the British Army.

After the Jacobite defeat, Mercer sailed for America and landed in Philadelphia, just in time to serve in another conflict, The French & Indian War. In 1756, after the defeat of British General Edward Braddock, the Pennsylvania militia was called up for service on the Western frontier. Mercer accepted a commission as a captain. During his service, Mercer and a small party were separated from their unit and attacked by Indians; Mercer, the only survivor, walked 100 miles in 10 days back to his own forces. The Pennsylvania Gazette gave this account of Mercer’s experiences:

We hear that Captain Mercer was 14 Days in getting to Fort Littleton. He had a miraculous Escape, living ten Days on two dried Clams and a Rattle Snake, with the Assistance of a few Berries. The Snake kept sweet for several Days, and, coming near Fort Shirley, he found a Piece of dry Beef, which our People had lost, and on Trial rejected it, because the Snake was better. His wounded Arm is in a good Way, tho’ it could be but badly drest, and a Bone broken.

Promoted for his actions, Mercer, now a Colonel, found himself in 1758 among a force of Pennsylvania and Virginia militia attacking the French garrison at Ft. Duquesne. During this action Mercer shared command with George Washington. The French abandoned the fort on November 25, 1758, and it was renamed “Fort Pitt” in honor of the British Prime Minister William Pitt. Today it is known as Pittsburgh.

After the war ended, Mercer moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, which boasted a large community of Scottish expatriates. Mercer joined Fredericksburg Masonic Lodge No. 4 (serving as Worshipful Master ) served on the vestry of St. George’s Anglican Church, opened an apothecary shop and began a “healthy” practice as a physician in his adopted hometown. Among his 100 patients was Mary Washington, the mother of the General and Mercer’s friend. An English visitor remarked of Mercer that he was “a physician of great merit and eminence, and as a man, possessed of almost every virtue and accomplishment of a just and moderate way of thinking, and a generosity of principle.”

While in Fredericksburg, He married Isabella Gordon and they had three children: Hugh Tennant Mercer, Ann Mercer Patton, and William Mercer. The Mercers purchased Ferry Farm from Washington in 1774.

Active in revolutionary politics, Mercer soon found himself appointed as Colonel of the 3rd Regiment of Virginia militia, which was later seconded to the Continental Line. Among its ranks were the future President James Monroe, and future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall.

Recognized for his intelligence and military knowledge by Washington, Mercer soon became one of his greatest subordinates, and reportedly inspired Washington’s famous “crossing of the Delaware” before the Battle of Trenton in 1776.

Sadly, Mercer’s service was cut short in 1777, when he was bayoneted by British soldiers at Princeton. Leading a force of 350 Americans, Mercer encountered a combined force of British Infantry and Cavalry. During the fight, Mercer’s horse was shot from under him, and was surrounded by redcoats, who called on him to surrender. When Mercer drew his sword, he was bayoneted and left for dead. Not wishing to leave the field, the mortally wounded Mercer was propped up against an Oak tree (The “Mercer Oak”) and then later taken to a field hospital in the home of Thomas Clarke. Mercer finally succumbed to his wounds on January 12, 1777.

Mercer’s funeral in Philadelphia was attended by more than 3,000 mourners. Mercer was buried in the graveyard of Philadelphia’s Christ Church until 1840, when the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia urged that he be re-interned under a new monument at Laurel Hill Cemetery, where he lies today. A bronze statue was erected in Fredericksburg, and his apothecary shop is a state historic site. Counties in Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois bear his name, as well as a town in Pennsylvania, Mercersburg, where President James Buchanan, also of Scottish heritage, was born. General Mercer’s Sword is a treasured relic of the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia.

Famous descendants of General Mercer include the songwriter Johnny Mercer, who wrote Stardust, Moon River and other popular ballads. Another descendent of the Generals also rose to military fame – General George S. Patton.

Statues of Mercer were erected in Fredericksburg and Philadelphia, and a 2005 article in the Aberdeen Press & Journal (reproduced on the Clan Munro Society’s web site) noted that the home of his alma mater had recognized his connection to “The Granite City”. His apothecary shop still stands in Fredericksburg today as a historic site.

Some historians (such as Douglas Southall Freeman) believe that had Mercer lived after Princeton, he might have commanded American forces in the Revolution, and not Washington. While such theories cannot be proven, we do know of his devotion to the American cause; he reportedly told the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1776 that he “would serve his adopted country and the cause of liberty in any rank or station”, and (to Dr. Benjamin Rush, who treated him after Princeton) he “would cross the mountains and live among the Indians rather than submit to the power of Great Britain.”

President Woodrow Wilson is said to have remarked that “every line of strength in American history is colored by Scottish blood.” No doubt this Virginia native and President of Princeton University had General Hugh Mercer in mind when he uttered those words.