Hugh Mercer Full Biography
I was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1725, the son of Rev. William Mercer. I entered the school of medicine of the University of Aberdeen in 1740 and graduated in 1744 at the age of nineteen. In 1745 when Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland, I joined his forces as an assistant surgeon in the Highland Army. After our defeat at Culloden Moor on April 16, 1746 I was a fugitive. With the help of my family and friends, I was able to escape Scotland and take passage for America. I arrived in Philadelphia in May 1747. For the next eight years I established my medical practice. I also fought in the French and Indian War, but this time on the side of the British army.
After the defeat of General Braddock, Pennsylvania called out its militia to defend the settlers living on its frontier and on March 6, 1756 I was given a captain’s commission and took charge of a militia company. On September 8, 1756 I was severely wounded in a raid against Shawnee and Delaware Indians at Kittanning in western Pennsylvania. During the raid I became detached from my company and lived through a harrowing two weeks before finding safety. The Pennsylvania Gazette of September 30, 1756 described my ordeal in these words:
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.
After this, I moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia where I met and married Isabella Gordon. Isabella and I lived in Virginia for fourteen years and increased our family with five children. I operated a medical and apothecary practice in Fredericksburg that drew great praise. When the Revolution broke out in 1775, I became colonel of the Third Virginia Continental Regiment.
I came to New Jersey in July 1776 when my fellow Virginian General Washington named me commander of the Flying Camp, a force composed primarily of militia whose purpose was to defend New Jersey during the New York campaign of the summer and fall of 1776. The Flying Camp also served as a strategic reserve of men to supplement, if necessary, the Continental army defending New York. General Washington said he chose me for this assignment because he believed that I understood militia from my experiences in the French and Indian War and because I was a very patient man. My patience was severely tested with the Flying Camp where I had to deal with reluctant, often disobedient, militiamen from several states called up to help defend New Jersey. I never received the number of militiamen authorized for the Flying Camp and those who came did not always stay or perform well. Eventually, New Jersey militiamen had to take on the brunt of the burden of the Flying Camp, even though many New Jersey men had volunteered for a five-month state militia brigade that went to New York to fight alongside General Washington’s Continentals.
One of my assignments was to construct Fort Lee at what is now the western approach to the George Washington Bridge. When our army retreated across New Jersey after the Battle of White Plains, Fort Lee fell to Lord Cornwallis’ advancing British troops in November 1776. The Flying Camp was disbanded about this time and I was given a new command that I led vigorously at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. At Princeton, my troops were in the forefront of the action, meeting the British in an orchard on the Clarke farm. I became dismounted when my horse was shot, became separated from my men, and surrounded by British troops. I refused to surrender and charged the enemy with my sword drawn, but was overwhelmed by numbers, beaten with muskets and stabbed with bayonets. General Washington brought some troops to reinforce my men and they found me wounded and took me to the nearby Thomas Clarke farmhouse. Here I was treated with the best care available at the time, but died nine days later on January 12, 1777. My body was taken to Philadelphia for burial. When a new county was formed from parts of Hunterdon, Burlington, Somerset and Middlesex counties in 1838 it was named Mercer County in my honor. The county seal has in its center a representation of the oak tree that I am said to have rested against after receiving my fatal wounds. This tree, known as the Mercer Oak, stood on the Princeton Battlefield until the year 2000.
English, Frederick. General Hugh Mercer, Forgotten Hero of the American Revolution. New York: Vantage, 1975.
Goolrick, John T. The Life of General Hugh Mercer. New York: Neale, 1906.
Kidder, Larry. A People Harassed and Exhausted: The Story of a New Jersey Militia Regiment in the American Revolution. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.
Pennsylvania Gazette, Sept 30, 1756, page 2
Waterman, Joseph M. With Sword and Lancet. Richmond: Garrett & Massie, 1941.