Sketch by John Trumbull
~ The Battle of Princeton 1777 ~
X – The Death of General Hugh Mercer – X
George Washington en Route to Princeton:
On January 2, 1777, General Cornwallis marched the British Army from Princeton, New Jersey, to Trenton New Jersey where Washington was encamped with the Continental Army. General Cornwallis’ intent was to capture the American army by nightfall the following day. Washington knew his tactical position was perilous. His choices were very limited. He knew it was crazy to fight against the overwhelming number British forces, and it was also futile to re-cross the Delaware. So, he decided to stealthily march onto Princeton to somehow gain the rear of Cornwallis troops during the night. Washington also realized that the British were keeping tabs on his position. So, to outwit the British, Washington left camp fires burning in the extreme cold. Undiscovered by the British, he and marched his army at midnight and reached Princeton before sunrise on January 3rd 1777. Commanding the British rear forces was Colonel Mawhood, who had just begun his march his troops to join General Cornwallis in Trenton. Mawhood, surprisingly discovered by scouts that General Mercer’s American army was approaching fast. Time was at the utmost before a sharp unintended and unplanned engagement took place. Meanwhile the British army at Trenton were surprised to find that Washington’s troops had escaped! In bewilderment, General Cornwallis hastened his troops immediately toward Princeton when he heard cannonading in the distance. Outsmarted by Washington!
Trumbull’s depiction of the Battle of Princeton in 1777, in which Mercer was killed. George Washington is the figure on the horse.
Hugh Mercer: X
While leading a vanguard of 350 soldiers, Mercer’s brigade encountered two British regiments and a mounted unit. A fight broke out at an orchard grove and Mercer’s horse was shot from under him. Getting to his feet, he was quickly surrounded by British troops who mistook him for George Washington and ordered him to surrender. 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, Washington himself entered the fray. Washington rallied Mercer’s men and pushed back the British regiments, but Mercer had been left on the field to die with multiple bayonet wounds to his body and blows to his head. (Legend has it that a beaten Mercer, with a bayonet still impaled in him, did not want to leave his men and the battle and was given a place to rest on a white oak tree’s trunk, while those who remained with him stood their ground. The tree became known as “the Mercer Oak” and is the key element of the seal of Mercer County, New Jersey.)
When he was discovered, Mercer was carried to the field hospital in the Thomas Clarke House at the eastern end of the battlefield. In spite of medical efforts by Benjamin Rush, Mercer was mortally wounded and died nine agonizing days later on January 12, 1777.
Because of Mercer’s courage and sacrifice, Washington was able to proceed into Princeton and defeat the British forces there. He then moved and quartered his forces to Morristown in victory. Because of those victories, Washington’s army reenlisted, the French finally approved arms and supplies to the Americans and a stunned Cornwallis pulled his forces back to New York to reassess the surprising American successes. The “crisis” had ended, America had the means to fight, and British public support for the war slowly began to wane.
Mercer was born near Rose hearty, at the manse of Pitsligo Kirk, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, to Presbyterian Minister, Reverend William Mercer of Pitsligo Parish Church and Ann Monro. At 15, he attended the University of Aberdeen, Marischal College, where he studied medicine and graduated a Doctor. He was an assistant surgeon in the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, and was present at the Battle of Culloden when Charles’ army was crushed on April 16, 1746, and many survivors were hunted down and killed. As a fugitive in his own homeland in 1747, Mercer fled Scotland after months in hiding. He bought his way onto a ship and moved to America, settling near what is now Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and practiced medicine for eight years.