In the summer of 1776, when British military operations shifted from New England to the Mid-Atlantic, George Washington dispatched Brigadier General Hugh Mercer to confer with the Governor of New Jersey with a characteristically brief, but substantial endorsement: “…in his Experience & Judgment you may repose great Confidence.” The son of a minister, Mercer was born in Pitsligo, Scotland on January 16, 1726. He attended Marischal College from 1740 to 1744 and was further trained in the medical arts. It is often written that Mercer attached himself to the cause of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, serving as a surgeon’s mate at the Battle of Culloden.
By 1750, Hugh Mercer had immigrated to North America and settled near present-day Mercersburg, Pennsylvania as a physician. As the French and Indian War progressed, he was appointed a Captain in 1756, commanding a company in the colony’s provincial armed forces. Captain Mercer participated in the Kittanning Expedition in September 1756, where he was wounded. By September of 1758, he had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was preparing for the Forbes Expedition to capture Fort Duquesne, which brought him into contact with Colonel George Washington. Once the post was taken, Mercer was selected to command “the point” for nine tenuous months until construction on Fort Pitt could begin. The Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in North America, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commended Colonel Mercer’s professionalism by writing, “Some such men as Col Mercer amongst the Provincials would be of great Service…”
With the cessation of hostilities, Hugh Mercer was mustered out of military service and, by February 1761, removed to Fredericksburg, Virginia where he again set up practice as a physician. In this capacity, he treated members of George Washington’s family. As his own family grew, Dr. Mercer arranged to purchase George Washington’s boyhood-home, Ferry Farm.
However, as tensions amplified with Great Britain, Virginia prepared for war. Hugh Mercer was a clear-cut choice for senior leadership in both his state’s and the new nation’s military forces. During the Gunpowder Plot in the spring of 1775, Mercer sought to coordinate his own militia company with those of neighbouring counties and march on Williamsburg with George Washington at their head. At the beginning of the new year, Mercer was appointed to the rank of colonel and placed in command of the 3rd Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army.
In continued recognition of his abilities, the Continental Congress appointed Hugh Mercer a Brigadier General on 5 June 1776 and, at the request of the Commander-in-Chief, ordered him to join the main army in New York. Upon Mercer’s arrival he was appointed to command the Flying Camp, a highly mobile reserve of militia, stationed on the central New Jersey shore to screen against the enemy on Staten Island. Once the British Army began their march across New Jersey, Mercer’s militia command melted away from term expirations and desertions alike, and a brigade was cobbled together for him to lead at the Battles of Trenton, on December 26, 1776 and Princeton, on January 3, 1777. In the latter action, General Mercer would be mortally wounded after a larger force overwhelmed him. Lingering for several days, Hugh Mercer died on January 12, 1777. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the surgeon who attended him during his infirmity, wrote that “His character was marked with all the traits of one of the heroes of antiquity; the manner of his death was equally honorable to himself and to our cause.”
Samuel K. Fore
Harlan Crow Library
Cecere, Michael. ‘Second to No Man but the Commander in Chief’: Hugh Mercer, American Patriot. Berwyn Heights, Md.: Heritage Books, 2015.
Ketchum, Richard M. The Winter Soldiers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973.
Ward, Matthew C. Breaking the Backcountry: the Seven Years’ War in Virginia & Pennsylvania, 1754-1765. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003.