This day in history, January 12, 1777, American Brigadier General Hugh Mercer died as a result of his wounds received at the Battle of Princeton and became a fallen hero and rallying symbol of the American Revolution.
Mercer (January 17, 1726 – January 12, 1777) was a soldier and physician. He initially served with British forces during the Seven Years’ War but later became a brigadier general in the Continental Army and a close friend to George Washington.
There are rumors that Mercer exclusively originated Washington’s plan to cross the Delaware River and surprise the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, and he was certainly a major contributor to its execution. Because of the win at Trenton (and a small monetary bonus), Washington’s men agreed to a ten-day extension to their enlistment.
When Washington decided to face off with Cornwallis during the Second Battle of Trenton on January 2, 1777, Mercer was given a major role in the defense of the city. The next day, January 3, Washington’s army was en route to Princeton, New Jersey. 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 he 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 (now a museum) at the eastern end of the battlefield. In spite of medical efforts by Benjamin Rush, Mercer was mortally wounded and died nine days later.