Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mercer: a county, a tree and a kick-butt general

Every once in a while, we run into a place or a story that is so remarkable that we wonder why in heck we'd never heard it. Our visit to the Princeton Battlefield revealed the contributions of a Revolutionary War officer who was so tough that, well, he could teach nails how to be tough. His grit and heroism made such an impression on his contemporaries that a county, a fort and a tree in New Jersey were named in his honor though he never lived here. Add to that the fact that he sired a family that produced, among others, General George Patton, and it's odd to think that more of us don't know his story well.

Hugh Mercer, in a study
by painter John Trumbull
Originally trained as a physician, Hugh Mercer first saw combat in his native Scotland as an assistant surgeon in the army of Bonnie Prince Charles during the battle to regain the Scottish monarchy. Fleeing to America to escape persecution, he settled in Pennsylvania and practiced medicine, but the call of battle came once again, this time the French and Indian War. He joined the British cause in 1755, first as a surgeon and then as a soldier, serving honorably in both roles. It's said that after suffering serious injury and being separated from his troops in a battle against the Delaware and Shawnee tribes, he walked 100 miles back to his fort. His feats earned him the rank of colonel and some influential new friends, most notably George Washington.

Fast forward to the American Revolution. Mercer was first appointed Colonel within the Virginia Line and then Brigadier General of the Armies of the United Colonies. In the latter role, he supervised the construction of Fort Lee on the Palisades, and his brigade was among the troops who retreated in November 1776 following the British attack on the fort. You'll recall that after the Continentals' arrival in Pennsylvania, Washington set into motion the surprise attack that would startle the Hessians at Trenton and turn the tide of the war in the Americans' favor.

The success at Trenton emboldened Washington to attempt to take Princeton on January 3, 1777, with Mercer's brigade at the lead. Hitting the British head on at Thomas Clarke's farm outside of town, Mercer found himself separated from his troops as he had during the French and Indian War. This time, however, the outcome was not to be as favorable for him. Having shot his horse from under him and confused him for Washington, the British surrounded Mercer and demanded that he surrender. Instead, he drew his sword and charged, despite being substantially outnumbered. The Brits set on him with musket butts and bayonets, beating him severely and stabbing him seven times before leaving him for dead. They clearly underestimated the amount of fight left in the man: he endured another nine days before perishing.

The 'new' Mercer Oak,
descendant of the original.
While Mercer himself was unsuccessful in repelling the British, his courage ultimately helped turn the tide in the Americans' favor. Washington rallied Mercer's retreating troops to return to the conflict, resulting in another decisive battle that lifted American morale and forced Cornwallis back to New York. Not long afterward, Fort Mercer, on the Delaware River, was named for him.

So, now we know about the general, but what's this about a tree? Legend holds that the mortally injured Mercer was propped beneath a white oak tree on the Princeton battlefield, and that he refused to leave his troops until they had won the battle. In truth, he was brought to the nearby Clarke House for treatment as soon as he could be retrieved, but you have to admit that the tree story is a lot more compelling. A reminder of the general's heroism, the oak became the symbol of Mercer County and Princeton Township, as well as New Jersey's Green Acres program. (So much for the Salem Oak.) Unfortunately the tree succumbed to old age and collapsed in 2000, but a healthy successor tree, sprouted from an acorn of the original in 1980, now stands next to the stump of the trunk against which Mercer was said to have leaned. Let's hope that this descendant lasts many years, to help tell the story its parent is said to have witnessed.

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