This Day in History: Hugh Mercer, hero at Princeton, passes away
On this day in 1777, Brigadier General Hugh Mercer dies from the wounds that he received at the Battle of Princeton. Do you remember him from the January 3 history post? He was the American officer who refused to surrender, even when he was surrounded by British soldiers.
Mercer was born in Scotland. Much of his early life is lost to history, although it is known that he was a surgeon in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army. When that uprising against the British was squashed at Culloden in 1746, Mercer fled to the American colonies.
The move changed his life. He fought in the French and Indian War, after which he settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He became friends with his fellow Virginian—none other than George Washington! He even bought Washington’s childhood home, Ferry Farm, with the intent of establishing his family there.
The American Revolution interrupted these plans. As tensions grew with Great Britain, Mercer was quick to join the Patriot cause. He was appointed Colonel of the 3rd Virginia Regiment, then a Brigadier General in the Continental Army. He fought with Washington at the Battle of White Plains, and he was with the army on its retreat through New Jersey. He participated in both the first and second battles of Trenton. (See December 26 and January 2 history posts.) Washington trusted him, once writing that Mercer’s “Judgement and Experience may be depended upon.”
Mercer lived up to this trust during his final battle.
On January 2, Washington’s army was cornered at Trenton, but it had snuck away from Cornwallis in the middle of the night. Washington was headed toward Princeton. Part of Cornwallis’s army had been left behind there, and Washington planned a surprise attack. As the army approached the city, Mercer was dispatched with a contingent of men to seize a bridge that lay on the route toward Trenton. He would be able to delay any British that were headed toward Cornwallis.
Early on January 3, Mercer’s men ran into the British. The two sides met in an orchard. The fighting was intense, and the British were fighting well. Mercer was surrounded by British soldiers. They saw the markings on his uniform, and they thought he was Washington! One yelled: “Call for Quarters, you damned rebel.” Mercer refused. Instead, he fought back, yelling: “I am no rebel.” Mercer was struck down by the butt of muskets, bayoneted multiple times and left for dead on the field.
Just at that moment, Washington arrived with reinforcements. In the end, Americans would win the day. But it was too late for Mercer. Legend has it that he refused to leave the field until the battle was concluded. As the story goes, his men propped him up against an oak tree (the “Mercer Oak”) so they could defend the man who would not leave them.
After the battle, Mercer was carried to a nearby house so he could be treated. Dr. Benjamin Rush was there, helping his treatment, but he finally succumbed to his wounds on January 12.
Yet another sacrifice made so that we might have freedom.
Benson J. Lossing, Pictorial Field-Book of the American Revolution (1850) (Vol. 2)
David McCullough, 1776 (2005)
John T. Goolrick, The life of General Hugh Mercer (1906)
Letter from George Washington to Brigadier General William Livingston (July 5, 1776)