Monday, January 2, 2017

People: The Surgeon General

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the Battle of Princeton, the culmination of a week of action and daring that literally saved the American Revolution - at least until its next crisis. The battle featured a daring night march by Washington's army - pinned and shivering between the Assunpink Creek and the frozen Delaware River and awaiting possible annihilation at the hands of General Cornwallis and 5,000 British and Hessians hell bent on revenge for the first battle of Trenton. Washington's men abandoned camp in the dark winter night. Tramping through the frozen marshlands, they circled around the British, arriving several miles to their rear and poised to take the British base at Princeton. Washington succeeded in one of the rare open field engagements of the campaign, exhibiting decisiveness and personal bravery in leading his men across the snow covered fields in a gallant charge. But the victory came at a great price: two of his ablest generals fell that day. One of them was the Scottish born surgeon turned soldier - Hugh Mercer.

Young Hugh Mercer

Early Life: Scalpel, Claymore and Tomahawk

Mercer fought with the clans at Culloden

Mercer was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1725 and earned a medical degree from the university of that name in 1744. Apparently a lover of hopeless (not lost) causes, the young Mercer joined the Jacobite army under Prince Charles Edward, known as the Pretender, until that struggle for freedom was smashed by the Duke of Cumberland's redcoats at Culloden on 16 April, 1746. After a period in hiding Mercer fled to America and settled in  Pennsylvania where he established his medical practice. At the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1756 Mercer joined the colony's forces. Throughout the war, Pennsylvania's western region suffered from relentless Indian raids, spurred on by the French. Mercer began his service as part of Colonel John Armstrong's expedition against the Indians at Kittanning where he was wounded. In 1758 he served as a lieutenant colonel in the siege of Fort Duquesne and was later given command there to secure the west. About that time he made friends with a  colonel named George Washington, who commanded the Virginia Regiment, which performed the same duties protecting Virginia's western frontier.

British capture of Fort Dusquesne

Colonial Life: Prosperity and Family

When the war ended in 1763, Mercer moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia and reestablished his medical practice. One wonders if the acquaintance with Washington had anything to do with the move to the Old Dominion. When Mercer arrived in Fredericksburg, it was a thriving Scottish community. Fellow Scot John Paul Jones's brother farmed near Fredericksburg and Jones himself hoped to make it his permanent home. He became a noted member and businessman in town, buying land and involving himself in local trade. His medical practice put him, in contact with many prominent Virginians. George Washington's mother, Mary Ball Washington, became a patient. In Fredericksburg, Mercer married Isabella Gordon started a family  that resulted in five children. He later bought George Washington's childhood home, Ferry Farm, which he hoped to make his permanent residence.

Mary Washington was a patient
of Mercer's (seen here as younger woman)

Run up to War

As with so many Virginians, Mercer embraced the Patriot cause in the run up to the American Revolution. He became a member of the Fredericksburg Committee of Safety, and on April 25 he was one of the members of the Independent Company of the Town of Fredericksburg who sent a letter of concern to then-Colonel George Washington when the British removed gunpowder from the magazine at Williamsburg. Because he was a Scot, the Virginia Convention passed him over for appointment to command the first Virginia regiments in 1775. But he was named commander of all the minuteman companies in the four counties around Fredericksburg. Early in 1776, Mercer's military experience resulted in the provincial congress appointing him to colonel (commander) the 3rd Virginia Continental Line. Future president of the United States James Monroe and future Supreme Court Justice John Marshall served as officers under him.

James Monroe served under Mercer

From Surgeon to General

In June 1776 General George Washington, sorely in need of experienced commanders, prevailed on the Continental Congress to appoint Mercer a brigadier general.Mercer's experience and reputation caused Washington to give him command of the "Flying Camp during the New York campaign." These were raw militias in need of strong leadership and canny training. The Flying Camp formed a special military reserve but despite Mercer's efforts, it was plagued by shortages of equipment and manpower and was disbanded by end of year. Mercer also oversaw the building of Fort Lee, overlooking the North River across from Fort Washington in Manhattan. During the darkest moments of the war, Mercer played a prominent role in Washington's 26 December 1776 night march on Trenton. He helped plan and execute the crossing and led his brigade into Trenton from the west - driving the Hessians from the town and forcing them into the orchard where they would be shot to pieces. Mercer played a  prominent role repulsing the British in the second battle of Trenton, which took place on 2 January 1777. The following day, Washington's army marched on the British garrison at Princeton, New Jersey. The advanced guard of the march, Mercer's brigade of 350 encountered Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood's brigade of two British regiments and some dragoons - some 1,200 men. A savage firefight broke out at an orchard grove near Stony Brook Bridge. The fiery Mercer refused to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds and plunged into battle. But the better trained British pushed his men back and they began to break. While attempting to rally them, Mercer’s horse was shot from under him. He sprung to his feet, but was quickly surrounded by British troops who mistook him for George Washington and ordered him to surrender. Although outnumbered, he drew his saber and began an unequal contest. He was finally beaten to the ground, then bayoneted repeatedly—seven times—and left for dead. When Washington learned of the British attack and saw some of Mercer's men in retreat, entered the battle himself, famously rallying  Mercer's men and pushed back the British regiments.

Death of Hugh Mercer at Princeton

A Nation's Loss

After the battle Mercer's body was carried to a nearby farmhouse where Washington's leading physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush attended him. But Mercer died of his wounds on 12 January 1777. His loss was a great personal one for Washington, but an even greater loss for the new nation, which would have benefited from his leadership in peace as well as his leadership in war.

Mercer Statue at Fredericksburg

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