Freemasonry in History
"I am willing to serve my adopted country in any capacity she may need me."
Hugh Mercer, 1776
Birth: January 17, 1726
Death: January 12, 1777
back into the American Cause. In a desire to capitalize on his good fortune, Washington decided to stand ground at Trenton and invite the British in for another battle. Mercer was given a central role in the city’s defense. Deciding to end this rebellion once and for all, Cornwallis accepted the invitation and set off from his headquarters at Princeton. The Americans managed to slow up the British advance until dusk and then slugged it out with them at a river crossing on the outskirts of the city with the British failing after three pushes.
While Cornwallis’ men rested the night to renew a morning attack, Washington’s forces quietly left Trenton and marched northward to Princeton, burning down bridges in order to cut off the British’s ability to protect their rear echelon. At sunrise, the Redcoats discovered that the Americans were no longer in Trenton. Cornwallis assumed that Washington fled southward away from them and ordered a pursuit of the fleeing Colonials. By the time his tactical error was revealed, he was too far away to correct it.
Princeton, January 3, 1777; while leading a vanguard of the 350 Americans, General Mercer's 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 officers who believe him to be George Washington and orders him to surrender. Outnumbered, he drew his saber and began an unequal contest. He was finally beaten to the ground with muskets and bayonet thrusts. In learning of the British attack Washington himself entered the fray, rallying his men and pushing back the British regiments but Brother Mercer was found with a dozen wounds in his body and two in his head, left on the field to die.
Legend has it that a beaten Mercer with a bayonet still impaled in him did not want to leave his men and the battle, so was given a place to rest on the white oak tree's trunk while those who remained with him stood their ground, thus the tree is forever known as “the Mercer Oak”. Brother Hugh Mercer was then carried to the field hospital in the Thomas Clarke House (now a museum) at the eastern end of the battle field. In spite of medical efforts by Benjamin Rush, Hugh Mercer laid dying. When George Washington heard of the fate of his old friend, he sent his aide-de-camp and nephew Colonel George Lewis under a pre-arranged flag of truce with Cornwallis to allow him to watch over the final moments of this dying hero. Worshipful Brother Hugh Mercer passed away on January 12, 1777.
Because of Hugh’s courage, Washington was able to proceed into Princeton and rout the British forces there. He then moved and quartered his forces in Morristown in victory, thus ending the Ten Crucial Days. A stunned Cornwallis pulled back his forces to winter quarters to reassess the surprising American victories. America still had the means to fight its rebellion and in England, the royal government started losing support for the war.
The freedom that he fought and died for was for an American nation and succeeding generations of his family have distinguished his same courage. One famous descendant was from Hugh’s daughter, Ann Mercer and her husband, Robert Patton by the name of General George Smith Patton of World War II. It was Patton’s determination that earned him the reputation as America's best commander of armed forces in history; the same courage and determination that has often been exhibited by his famous Scottish ancestor, General Hugh Mercer. As for Brother Mercer, this nation has named many counties, memorials, and schools after him. Even here in Fredericksburg, we’ve erected a statue to commemorate him. And now in words, we praise him.
And so, Freemasonry, the United States of America, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and even this very town of Fredericksburg and the Masonic Lodge that bares her town’s name, has been greatly blessed by Providence to cherish and claim for their own two great men who were both National and Masonic icons. Two men who considered themselves close peers, combatant at arms, dear friends and Masonic brothers. One who was willing to raise up his working tools in the building of this nation, and one who was willing to lay down his working tools in the defense of the same. To both men Freemasonry was at the core of their soul and identity and it was this moral selflessness that makes them great as Americans and as Freemasons.
Hugh Mercer once stated, "I am willing to serve my adopted country in any capacity she may need me.”
As Americans and as Freemasons, what are you willing to do?
One of two Generals of the American Revolution to die in close-quartered combat against numerous enemies, Worshipful Brother Hugh Mercer knew that he was laying down his working tools as he raised his saber to face them at Princeton on January 3, 1777, and yet he did so because he was coldly aware that duty and responsibility sometimes requires the ultimate sacrifice, and we ourselves would be neglectful and remise in our duties if we did not continue giving him and others our thankful praises in honoring their sacrifices.
In the glory and praise that we in Fredericksburg Lodge No.4 give to our own Illustrious Brother George Washington, we have found it a difficult thing to see beyond his light, a light which understandably has a Tendency to overshadow the greatness of others. Personally, I feel it is important to pull out of that shadow and back into the light Brother Hugh Mercer, who was once Worshipful Master of our own Lodge here in Fredericksburg.
Scottish Rebel, Town Physician, Indian Fighter, American Soldier, and Freemason; it is important to remember Brother Mercer. He was known to be a major contributor in the plan to cross the Delaware River to capture the Hessians at Trenton. Rumor even has it that it was his idea. True or not, what we do know is that because of that plan, Brother Washington won his first victory at Trenton, and then at Princeton. Because of those two victories the British were thrown off balance at a time when their enemy was at their weakest, Washington not only kept his army but gained their confidence, and the French finally approved arms and supplies For the Americans.
All this good fortune was at a heavy cost; because George Washington’s dear and long time friend, personal advisor, and Masonic brother paid that price. Today, let us remember this sacrifice; let us remember Hugh Mercer.
Beginnings in Scotland
Hugh Mercer was born in Rosehearty, Scotland near Aberdeenshire on January 17, 1726 to Presbyterian Minister, Reverend William Mercer of Pitsligo Parish Church and Ann Monro. His was the life of any other Scottish lad with much focus on his father’s church. Young Hugh took early to reading and learning. At the age of 18, he attended University of Aberdeen’s Marischal College studying medicine and graduated as a Doctor.
When “Bonnie” Prince Charles Stuart returned to Scotland in 1745 to reclaim his grandfather’s lost throne from George I of Hanover, Dr. Mercer was thoroughly sympathetic to this rebel cause. Ironically, Hugh's loyalist grandfather, Sir Robert Monro was a commander in the Hanoverian army and knowing this his parent’s strongly objected to Hugh’s participation in this conflict. He joined anyways offering his service as an assistant surgeon in Charles Stuart’s army. At the Battle of Culloden Moor on April 16, 1746, Hugh Mercer witnessed butchery and viciousness as the Hanoverians crushed Charles’ army. In an attempt to make an example of the rebels, loyalist soldiers proceeded to hunt down and kill all survivors. Hugh was a fugitive. Knowing his life was in danger he fled to home to Aberdeenshire where he was given refuge, and lived in hiding for almost a year. Eventually, he was able to buy his way onto a ship heading for America and he never looked back. His beloved homeland would forever be a memory.
The French & Indian War
Landing in Philadelphia in 1747, Mercer settled in the Cumberland Valley frontier of Pennsylvania where in freedom he practiced medicine for eight peaceful years. But when General Braddock’s army was cut down by the French and Indians, he was shocked by the same butchery he remembered at Culloden. Hugh Mercer came to the aid of the wounded and eventually took up arms in support of the army that a few years back, was hunting him; this time not as a surgeon, but as a soldier. He was commissioned a Captain in a Pennsylvania Regiment and fought in many critical battles. During the attack on Kittanning he was badly wounded and separated from his unit. He trekked 100 miles through the woods for fourteen days, injured and with no supplies until he found his way back to Fort Shirley, where he was recognized and promoted. He continued to advance through the ranks and commanded garrisons.
It was during these trying times that Colonel Mercer developed a life-long and warm relationship with one Colonel George Washington, a relationship that would not only translate beyond their professional experience but into a personal friendship and future Masonic affiliation as well. Washington’ went so far as to recommend that Mercer move to Fredericksburg, VA to begin his medical practice anew at the conclusion of the war.
When Hugh Mercer arrived at the childhood home of George Washington in 1760, he was well received as a War Hero and a Scotsman. Fredericksburg was a thriving Scottish community that must have been a happy sanctuary for a Scotsman who could never again see his homeland. He became a noted member and businessman in town, surveying, buying and selling of land, involving himself in local trade.
Dr. Mercer joined Fredericksburg’s Masonic Lodge and received his first two degrees on January 19, 1767, his Master Mason degree on February 14, 1767 and a few years later he sat as Master of our Lodge. He opened a physician’s apothecary and practice, which to this day still stands in town. One of his most famous patients was Mary Washington, mother of George Washington who trusted him, and he prospered as the most respected Doctor in the area.
Hugh Mercer married Isabella Gordon and fathered three children; Hugh Tennant Mercer, Ann Mercer Patton, and William Mercer. In 1774, George Washington sold his childhood home of Ferry Farm to Brother Mercer who wanted to make this prize the land that he and his family would settle for the remainder of his days. Fredericksburg was the happiest fifteen years of his life, but when the call to arms came Hugh Mercer once again answered in service to his new nation.
Although Brother Mercer was initially commissioned a Militia Captain commanding the Independent Company of the Town of Fredericksburg, he was eventually promoted to full Colonel commanding the Third Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line. Young James Monroe and the future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall served as officers under Mercer's command. Within the back room of Hugh’s Apothecary Shop on Princess Anne Street and at the request of General George Washington to Congress, Hugh Mercer was commissioned a brigadier general in June 1776.
After capturing Boston, the British turned their attention to New York City and Philadelphia. Washington went to these cities’ defense. Throughout the New York and New Jersey campaigns General Mercer remained a close advisor to Washington. Just before the Battle of Manhattan, Washington ordered two forts built to repel the British Navy. On the New York side of the Hudson, Fort Washington was constructed and on the New Jersey banks, Mercer himself erected an earthen fortification named Fort Lee.
Though bravely defended, the British captured Ft. Washington on November 16, 1776 and Ft. Lee four days later. Although 3,000 Americans died or were taken prisoner and large stores of arms and supplies taken, Washington managed to keep the majority of his defeated army intact, retreating to Morristown for winter quarters during a period known as “the Crisis of the Revolution”. The Americans badly needed a victory.
Battle of Trenton & Princeton
Although it is only rumored that Hugh Mercer exclusively originated Washington's daring plan to cross the Delaware River and surprise the Hessians, what is confirmed is that he was a major contributor. What we do know is that Mercer participated in the capture of the Hessian troops at Trenton after the crossing and was recorded to have distinguished himself in its execution. From this victory, the supermajority of the soldiers agreed to a ten-day extension to their enlistment which was to expire in seven days. New life was breathed