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Exploring History: Scottish expat Mercer made an impact in region during Revolutionary times

By Miles Richards
Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 6:42 p.m.
 

Prior to the American Revolutionary War, a periodic guest at Col. William Crawford's plantation at Stewart's Crossing (Connellsville) upon the Youghiogheny River was Dr. Hugh Mercer of Fredericksburg, Va.

By retaining Crawford as his land agent, Mercer was able to obtain significant real estate within the Youghiogheny River Valley. Furthermore, he was known for his military service during the French & Indian War. Modern readers, however, probably are unfamiliar with him.

Hugh Mercer was born in 1725 upon a farm in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. By 1744, he had earned a medical degree at the University of Aberdeen.

Along with his relatives, Mercer was a strong Jacobite in his political sympathies. In essence, he supported the restoration of the Stuart Dynasty to the English throne.

The Stuarts had been out of power since James II's overthrown in 1688. When Prince Charles Edward Stuart arrived in western Scotland, in July 1744, Mercer promptly joined the cause.

Subsequently, he fought with the “Bonnie Prince” on April 16, 1746, at the bloody Battle of Culloden Moor. Once the rebellion was suppressed, Jacobite adherents, including Mercer, faced arrest for treason.

Consequently, he fled to northern Ireland and boarded a ship bound for North America. Mercer apparently was an unrepentant Jacobite for the rest of his life.

Upon reaching Pennsylvania, in May 1747, the Scottish expatriate briefly resided in Philadelphia. He eventually moved to Cumberland Valley upon Pennsylvania's frontier. Within the vicinity of the village of Conococheague, he established a farm. Mercer also commenced a successful medical practice that made him an instant local figure.

With the French & Indian War's outbreak in 1754, Mercer became a captain within the first Pennsylvania Regiment's Third Battalion (militia). Although, Mercer did not march northward with Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock's army to Fort Duquesne, he served as a surgeon at Fort Cumberland.

Working closely with Dr. James Craik, he treated the many wounded troops from Braddock's battered command when they reached the fort. Apparently, Craik introduced Mercer to Braddock's aide, George Washington amid this interlude.

In September 1756, Mercer participated in a successful upon Kittanning, a major Delaware stronghold, in the Allegheny River. As French allies, the Delawares had been using Kittanning as a staging area for bloody raids in British frontier settlements.

Amid the melee, Mercer's right arm was fractured by a musket ball. Subsequently, he received a colonelcy within the First Pennsylvanian.

Mercer, in 1758, played a prominent role within Brig gen. John Forbes's methodical military campaign across southern Pennsylvania toward the Ohio River's headwaters.

Unlike George Washington, though, he had a good working relationship with Col. Henry Bouquet, Forbes's deputy commander.

For instance, they cooperated in building a series of small forts, as well as supply depots along the new military highway, Forbes Road. Both Bouquet and Mercer, on Nov. 28, wee with the troops vanguard that encountered Fort Duquesne's burnt stockade.

Prior to withdrawing the previous day, the French garrison had set fire to their fortification. Accordingly, Forbes assigned Mercer the task of dismantling those charred ruins. Moreover, he and Bouquet cooperated in building Fort Pitt, the new British bastion. Because Forbes and Bouquet soon departed area, Mercer became Fort Pitt's first commandant.

Nonetheless, within three years Mercer had returned to civilian life. Relocating to Fredericksburg, Va., Mercer resumed practicing medicine. He married Isabella Gordon of Fredericksburg and their union produced four children.

Furthermore, he also renewed his friendship with George Washington. And he purchased extensive acreage in both Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

About 1768, Washington's mother moved into a house in Fredericksburg, thereby vacating Ferry farm, George's boyhood farm.

Consequently, Mercer purchased that plantation which became his primary residence. During this period, Mercer was a regular visitor to Mount Vernon. He also made several western sojourns to inspect his properties beyond the Allegheny Mountains.

With the American Revolutionary War's outbreak, in April 1775, Mercer publicly endorsed “independency.” Given his Jacobite record, he likely possessed scant loyalty to George III. Through the efforts of Washington and Patrick Henry, the Virginia Assembly appointed Mercer to be a colonel within the third Virginia Regiment.

A year later, the Continental Congress appointed him to a higher generalship. His basic duty was to command a force that guarded the northern New Jersey coast from British raiding parties based in Long Island, NY.

In October 1776, he commanded rear-guard troops who were covering the Continental Army's retreat from New York City into New Jersey. He also ensured that the enemy did not capture the various Delaware River bridges into Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, in December, Mercer worked closely with Washington on devising a surprise attack upon Trenton, N.J., which contained a garrison of Hessian (German) mercenary soldiers. At dawn, in Dec. 26, Mercer was with the first American attackers to enter Trenton. Amidst the melee reportedly, he engaged several Hessians.

Following this victory, Mercer was instrumental in forming a comparable plan for nearby Princeton. On Jan. 3, Mercer led his troops on a successful mission to secure Stony Brook Bridge.

Subsequently, he attempted to protect Washington's left flank as the Continental Army troops advanced into Princeton. During the British counterattack, however, several enemy soldiers has surrounded him.

Moments earlier his horse had been shot down and he was on foot. Mercer was clubbed in the head with a musket butt. Although badly dazed, Mercer fought back with a cutlass. Nonetheless, he received at least seven serious bayonet wounds before his men rescued him.

Mercer was carried on a litter to the nearby farm of Thomas Clark. Several army physicians attended to him the best they could. Washington also arranged that Dr. Benjamin Rush, Philadelphia's eminent surgeon, handle the case.

Initially, they hoped that Mercer might survive. Unfortunately, though, a bayonet puncture under his right armpit became severely infected.

By Jan. 12, 1777, Mercer died from his wounds. Not surprisingly, Washington was grief stricken upon learning of his good friend's passing.

By all accounts, Mercer's body was transported into Philadelphia by a hearse that rode over the thick ice covering the Delaware River.

Initially, he was interred within Christ Church Cemetery. By 1840, his grandchildren arranged to have Mercer's coffin transferred to Laurel Hill Cemetery, still in Philadelphia, but in a western suburb on the Schuykill River. Hugh Mercer has rested there to this day.

Exploring History appears in The Independent-Observer periodically. The author holds a doctorate in history from the University of South Carolina.

 

 
 


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