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Hugh Mercer: An unexpected life

September 4, 2004 1:10 am

Last of a series

DR. HUGH MERCER arrived in Fredericks- burg in 1761 at the age of 35. He was a seasoned veteran of the Pennsylvania militia that had defended against the French and Indians on the frontier after the English withdrew to Canada in 1755.

In 1758, with renewed English support and under an English general, Pennsylvanians and Virginians combined to accomplish the ouster of the French. When the Colonial troops were demobilized, Hugh Mercer made his way to Fredericksburg.

After 15 years of civilian life in Fredericksburg as a doctor, Mercer resumed his military career in the Virginia regiments created in 1775 and soon was appointed by the new Congress as an officer in the Continental army.

His service in the War for Independence was brief but heroic. He won high praise from Gen. George Washington, who utilized him in an important and much-needed victory at Trenton in December 1776.

Mercer died on Jan. 12, 1777, of bayonet wounds received in the follow-up attack on Princeton. His death was mourned by thousands in Philadelphia, for he had been a Pennsylvanian and a hero in the earlier war before he came to Fredericksburg.

But it was in Fredericksburg that he seemed to form and to realize his aspirations. And he showed new qualities of taste and temperament that enable us to enrich our impression of him while he lived here.

Hugh Mercer was born in 1726 into a family of Presbyterian ministers in the lowlands of Scotland near Aberdeen. He received a rigorous classical education and in 1744, he earned a master's degree and was in training to become a surgeon.

But Scotland was in a state of turmoil, with the country roused to support the claim of Charles Stuart to the throne of England occupied by the House of Hanover. Young Mercer's family and mentors were all devoted to the Stuart cause. With an army of 5,000, Bonnie Prince Charlie began his quest in 1745. Mercer joined as a physician's assistant and, though not a combatant, was thus present at the calamitous Battle of Culloden in April 1746, which ended the uprising with enormous casualties.

This catastrophe had unforeseen consequences that eventually led Mercer to Fredericksburg--for the English gave "no quarter" to the survivors, who became hunted men.

According to the biographers of Mercer's early life, he slipped away on a ship bound for Philadelphia. Upon his arrival, he went to the Pennsylvania back country where he served as a doctor to the widely dispersed settlers for several years.

These certainly seem like rugged and isolating surroundings for a man of his education and breeding. And though some fugitives who came to America established themselves in more familiar routines, we can assume Mercer still felt unsafe at the hands of the English.

In 1755, the English Gen. Edward Braddock had met a crushing defeat by the French in Pennsylvania as he sought to forge a route from Virginia to capture Fort Duquesne, a major French stronghold (today the city of Pittsburgh).

The defeat caused a major change in English policy. The government withdrew its protection of the frontier of the American colonies and made Canada the next arena in its war with France for global power.

Virginia's frontier was immediately endangered. Gov. Dinwiddie called for a regiment of 1,000 men and placed young George Washington in charge in August 1755; his command would last for three arduous years.

The change in English policy had also wreaked havoc on the Pennsylvania frontier and caused many of the settlers to begin a migration down the great road being forged through the western valley. That option must have been evident to Hugh Mercer. But because of the increasing brutality and terror, the Pennsylvania militia was being mobilized, and in March 1756, Mercer opted for a commission as a captain.

Before the year was out, he had experienced a harrowing ordeal from which he miraculously escaped with his life. He and a small party, who had become isolated from the main battalion, were set upon by Indians. All were killed except Mercer, who was left 100 miles from his fort without a horse or a weapon and with a shattered arm which he set himself. Though given up for dead, he survived a 10-day walk to Fort Shirley. The account of his experience in the Pennsylvania Gazette made him a celebrity.

Promoted to major in 1757, Mercer was advanced to the rank of colonel in May 1758 and placed in charge of a new battalion. The English Prime Minister William Pitt had launched his plan to escalate the war against the French on the frontier.

It was this campaign in the fall of 1758--to capture Fort Duquesne--that brought the Pennsylvanians and Virginians together under the command of the newly arrived English general, John Forbes.

As Washington with his men approached from Fort Cumberland in Maryland, Col. Mercer was approaching from the east. On Sept. 22, the Pennsylvanians and Virginians made camp at Raystown (today Bedford), about 100 miles east of the fort, where the final road was to be agreed on. Washington urged continuing the route begun by Gen. Braddock in 1755, but Gen. Forbes elected to clear a more direct route from the west.

According to surviving orderly books, Mercer and Washington--and the colonels of the other two Pennsylvania battalions--had turns as commanding officer of the encampment. This period from Sept. 22 to mid-October was the time that the two men had contact.

(But the supposition that this brief association in the midst of tense preparations for war ripened immediately into a close personal friendship cannot be supported. Though Washington undoubtedly took notice of Mercer's excellent performance and reputation, he was himself concerned with his own regiment's mission; and he was no doubt also personally preoccupied with his resignation plans and upcoming marriage.)

Mercer's principal mission was to prepare the road to Fort Duquesne, and Washington's was to advance to the post at Loyalhanna (today Ligonier), halfway to the fort. There was a last council of war at Loyalhanna on Nov. 11, which Mercer and the other colonels attended. Mercer then returned to Raystown, while Washington led the combined forces toward Fort Duquesne.

On Nov. 25, the French destroyed and then abandoned the fort. Washington took possession on Nov. 28 and left the area almost immediately. Mercer arrived with a contingent of 200 men to rebuild and protect the fort, now renamed Fort Pitt.

Because of the more secure defenses, the Virginia militia was reduced in 1759. Pennsylvania also reduced its militia strength from three battalions to two companies, leaving Hugh Mercer in charge of one company.

In 1760, a few militia units from both colonies were reactivated to rebuild some of the old French forts. George Weedon and William Daingerfield were among the contingent of 100 Virginians who reported to Fort Pitt in the summer of 1760. Hugh Mercer also arrived at the fort with 150 Pennsylvanians.

Both groups worked at Presque Isle, a fort on Lake Erie, from July until September, building a blockhouse and making other improvements for the English troops.

The small fort expected no military action and the "only enemy as yet has been the Musketoes," Weedon wrote his friend Charles Lewis in Spotsylvania. There was plenty of time for camaraderie among the officers.

Mercer knew by now that he would be demobilized by the end of the year, though he had made no plans. Yet a few weeks after his discharge in December, Hugh Mercer arrived in Fredericksburg.

"This place was recommended as likely to afford a genteel subsistence in the [practice of Physick]," he wrote a former military colleague in Pennsylvania in February. "Whether it will answer any expectations I cannot yet judge; but from the reception I met from the Gentlemen here, have reason to imagine it worth a few months trial."

Hugh Mercer's early years in Fredericksburg remain something of a mystery. He did join the new Masonic Lodge in December 1761, so he had obviously been well received. And the presence of a lively Scottish community was a haven after his years as a refugee.

(The Scotsmen must have viewed with some amusement the street names of their adopted home, which honored the royal family of Hanover, especially William, the brutal conqueror at Culloden.)

Mercer's friend Weedon had not yet taken up residence in the town; he was still a member of the Masonic Lodge at Port Royal. But Mercer could have found a room in hospitable quarters at the upper end of town where some Scottish merchants had congregated.

Also, the widow Barbara Jones still operated her small tavern on upper Caroline Street and had suitable accommodations for bed and board. The Masons used to meet there before they moved across the street in 1756 to the ordinary of Charles Julian, a new lodge member. (The little tavern was the very building Mercer would rent for his apothecary shop a few years later.)

In April 1762, Mercer obtained an appointment as a civilian doctor to the Virginia regiment, which was based in Fredericksburg and was experiencing an outbreak of smallpox. His services extended through the summer until October. He submitted a bill for 175 pounds for medicines and another for an expensive medicine chest costing 125 pounds. (The examining committee challenged his bill, but the Virginia Assembly honored all but 58 pounds.)

In 1763, George Weedon moved to Fredericksburg, transferring his lodge membership from Port Royal. And it was probably in that year that the two men married sisters, the daughters of the widow Gordon, who had run her husband's popular tavern since his death in 1750.

The following year, Weedon obtained a commission as a captain in the Spotsylvania militia. Also, the two men, now brothers-in-law, bought a ticket in Roger Dixon's lottery offering lots in his new development at the lower end of town. They drew lots 240, 250, and 203. (Weedon later built the Sentry Box on lot 250.)

In 1766, Hugh Mercer bought his first home, at the very steep price of 470 pounds, on Lot 50 at the corner of Amelia and Princess Anne streets, next door to Charles Dick. The seller, James Hunter, was one of the leading Scottish entrepreneurs, who had expanded the family business at the public wharf (on Henry Willis' old property). He also owned a foundry across the river and the farm next to Mary Washington where he now lived.

Beginning in 1767, Hugh Mercer became one of the principal doctors reimbursed by the vestry for the care of the indigent sick. (Because of some misinterpretations of the minutes, it has been incorrectly claimed that he was a vestryman.)

By now, Mercer's practice was growing and included a cross section of the population--ranging from John Mercer of Marlborough, who lived 15 miles away--to dozens of townspeople from every walk of life.

After his purchase of James Hunter's residence in 1766, Hugh Mercer settled into a more expensive and expansive lifestyle. In 1769, he acknowledged a debt of 549 pounds to Archibald Ritchie and Co. with interest dating from 1766, which suggests that he had not yet paid for his residence. But he would continue to make land purchases.

In 1771, he began a partnership with Dr. Ewen Clements, who had moved to Fredericksburg. Mercer's decision to expand his business may have been influenced by the opportunity created by the demise of Dr. Sutherland in 1765. (Mercer bought some of his town lots.)

The partners advertised in the Virginia Gazette. Their shop was on the Main (Caroline Street) "opposite Henry Mitchell's store" (which was on Lot 30 adjoining Julian's tavern property across the street). They offered "a large assortment of drugs and medicines of the best quality, just imported from London."

Their shop was no doubt in Barbara Jones' old tavern, on which Mercer was already paying rent. (He may have been there for some time, for she had died in 1765.) The partnership, however, did not work out, possibly because Mercer took two-thirds share of the profits to Clements' one-third.

On the first day of July in 1772, Mercer announced a new partnership with young John Julian, "next door to Mrs. Julian's tavern." He had moved directly across the street from his old shop, and the new partners were undoubtedly getting a rent break from Julian's mother, Phebe. One month later, Dr. Clements announced the sale of his share of the contents at the old location prior to moving away. He asked for "one hundred per cent of the original price for ready money only." Clements did not offer any bargains, and the parting between the former partners evidently was not amicable.

But Mercer's practice flourished, as his surviving ledger attests. Between 1771 and 1773, he had 243 accounts and over 100 local patients. Members of the gentry, leading merchants from both sides of the river, craftsmen, tavern keepers--all patronized his services.

Most of his ministrations to his patients were performed in their homes at five shillings a visit. His principal treatments were purges, vomits and bleedings.

Several members of the gentry had very large bills reflecting serious health problems. Among them were John Mercer, Charles Dick, Fielding Lewis, and Roger Dixon. And, of course, there were illnesses among family members, as well.

The partnership with John Julian lasted several years. The formal announcement of its dissolution appeared in the Virginia Gazette early in 1776, when Mercer was preparing to depart for military service. But by then, he had already signed a long-term lease on his former shop to secure the location when he returned from the war. (His widow, Isabella, controlled the lease until her death in 1791, and afterwards, her son-in-law Robert Patton was an occupant of the building.)

Hugh Mercer impressed many with his conduct. An English visitor in 1774 described him as "a physician of great merit and eminence, and as a man, possessed of almost every virtue and accomplishmentof a just and moderate way of thinking, anda generosity of principle."

By now, however, Mercer had acquired a Virginia gentleman's taste for land ownership and conviviality. He took advantage of his eligibility as a veteran for bounty land in Pennsylvania and he also bought the bounty rights of some of his Virginia friends. In 1773, he bought 300 acres on the Fall Hill.

Meanwhile, the sociable Scotsman was frequently enjoying the hospitality of his brother-in-law's tavern in the next block. He was the most frequent patron of the tavern and also bought large quantities of meat and staples from Weedon's supply business.

He was often at "supper and club" joining the group who ate and drank together. As feelings ran high in 1775, no one was more of an activist than Hugh Mercer (except perhaps his brother-in-law Weedon). In March, Mercer treated the new Independent Company to punch. In July, he paid for four bowls of punch for the volunteers who had gone to Williamsburg to protest the confiscation of the stores in the powder magazine.

In September 1775, Mercer was elected head of the regional Minute Men (consisting of the surrounding four counties). But he was then appointed an officer in the 2nd Regiment created by the Virginia Convention; and before the year was out, he was promoted to colonel by the convention and then placed in charge of the newly created 3rd Regiment.

Early in February 1776, the Continental Congress took six Virginia regiments into the Continental Line (army), including Mercer's.

Before he departed for duty, he made out a detailed will instructing his executors what to do with his properties in case of his death.

His most prized possession was the Washington farm, which he had purchased from George Washington in 1774. The price agreed on was 2,000 pounds, to be paid in five annual payments, though Mercer confidently expected "to discharge the debt sooner." From that time on, the farm was the centerpiece of his future plans.

Mercer instructed his executors to sell all his town lots, including his residence, and to build a new dwelling at the farm if the old farmhouse was not satisfactory to his wife.

His plans were not realized. Mercer was soon singled out by Gen. Washington for extraordinary duties. He died of wounds incurred at the Battle of Princeton in January 1777.

But Isabella Mercer did not wish to live on the farm. His executors improvised the means to accommodate her. They personally bought the home on Lot 50 and then sold it to her attorney to convey to her as her own property. She lived there until her death in 1791. It was then owned for many years by her daughter's husband, Robert Patton.

The Mercer children (Hugh Tennant, Ann Mercer Patton and William) inherited the Washington farm. Young Hugh T. Mercer, the son his father never knew, moved into the Sentry Box, a legacy from his uncle, George Weedon, about 1800. The house lay opposite the farm, and Mercer was prompted to reactivate the ferry. He leased the operation to a series of managers and actively promoted it until the farm was sold in 1829. The ferry continued to be known as Mercer's or the Lower Ferry for many years.

There are several prominent descendants of Hugh and Isabella Mercer. Gen. Hugh Weedon Mercer, CSA, was a grandson born in Fredericksburg who moved to Savannah. And in a later generation of that line, John Herndon Mercer, more familiarly known as Johnny Mercer, was the composer of "Stardust" and other famous 20th-century ballads. Gen. George Patton of World War II fame was a descendant of Ann Mercer and Robert Patton.

PAULA S. FELDER is a Fredericksburg historian specializing in the 18th century. Contributors of information to this column include Genevieve Bugay, manager of the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop; Jeffrey Edmunds, Colonial historian and member of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library reference staff; Marian McCabe, project coordinator; Colonial historian Milford M. Nolan; and CRRL Virginiana librarian Barbara Willis.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.