The Aftermath of Battle

 

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Death of Gen. Hugh Mercer

Charles Jacobs Peterson, in his 1856 book The military heroes of the Revolution: with a narrative of the War of Independence, devotes a chapter to the story of General Hugh Mercer and his death at the Battle of Princeton. Written in the dramatic prose typical of the antebellum period, Peterson describes the scene as follows:

The sun had just risen, and the hoar frost bespangled the twigs, the blades of grass, every thing around; never, perhaps, was there a more lovely scene than the one so soon to be darkened by the smoke of blood and ensanguined by mortal strife. Advancing to a worm-fence, Mercer ranged his men along it and ordered them to fire. The British replied, and instantly charged. It was a gallant sight, as even their adversaries confess, to see those splendid veterans advancing through the smoke, their arms glistening, their bayonets in an unbroken line, and their tramp as steady as on a parade. The enemy were comparatively fresh; the Americans were exhausted by eighteen hours of fighting and marching, and, moreover, were only armed with rifles; yet they stood until the third fire, when seeing the bayonets of the British bristling close at hand, they turned and fled. The ardent and heroic soul of Mercer could not endure this spectacle. At first he tried to rally his men, but this was impossible; and in a few seconds he found himself deserted in the rear. Disdaining to fly, he turned on the foe. At this instant a blow from a musket brought him to the ground. He was immediately surrounded by the British soldiery who bayoneted him as he lay; but, like a wounded lion, defiant to the last, Mercer continued to lunge at his enemies. "Call for quarters, you d__d rebel," and "we have got the rebel General," were the cries of the soldiery in this melee, each word being accompanied by a new bayonet stroke. But still the wounded man fought on, his indignation repelling in words the charge of rebellion. Alone, amid his many foes, he maintained the unequal strife! At last, fainting from loss of blood, he sank back, to all appearance dead. With an oath at his heroic obstinacy, and, perhaps, a last thrust of the bayonet, his assailants now left him, and hurried to regain their companions engaged in pursuit of the flying foe. (p. 269).

After the retreat of the enemy, the wounded Mercer was found on the field, and assisted into a house, which stood a few rods from the place where he fell. On the march to Morristown, however, the Commander-in-chief, hearing that Mercer survived, deputed Major George Lewis, his own nephew, with a flag and letter to Lord Cornwallis, requesting that the bearer might be allowed to remain with the wounded General, and tend him during his illness. Cornwallis, who was rarely wanting in courtesy, not only acceded to this, but sent his own surgeon to wait on the sufferer. This gentleman, at first, held out hopes to his patient, that the wounds, though many and severe, would not be mortal. But Mercer, who had been an army-surgeon himself, shook his head with a faint smile, and addressing young Lewis, said, "Raise my right arm, George, and this gentleman will then discern the smallest of my wounds, but which will prove the most fatal. Yes, sir, that is a fellow that will soon do my business."

His words proved prophetic: he languished until the 12th, and then expired. He died far from his family, and in the house of a stranger; yet one thought cheered him to the last, it was that he perished in the cause of freedom! The death bed of Mercer was attended by two females, of the society of Friends, who, like messengers from heaven, smoothed his pillow and cheered his declining hours. They inhabited the house to which he was carried, and refusing to fly during the battle, were there when he was brought, wounded and dying, to the threshold. History has scarcely done justice to the women of the Revolution. Those whose relatives were embarked in the contest were the prey of constant anxieties, and had to endure privations such as we would now shudder even to record. Death continually removed some brother, or parent, or husband. The few who were restrained by religious scruples from an active participation in the war, like the peaceful females who watched by Mercer's dying bed, still had their warmest sympathies enlisted for a suffering country, and were forced, in common with others, to submit to sacrifices, the result of the disordered condition of affairs. The women of the Revolution were more generally true to the cause of freedom than were the other sex. They endured in silence and without complaint. Let us pay this tardy tribute to the patriotism of those immortal females!” (p. 275)

After the Battle

Following the battle, Washington remained in Princeton for about two hours as arrangements were made to tend to the wounded. As Washington made plans for his next move, he took time to enjoy breakfast at John Witherspoon's Princeton home, Tusculum. Washington pursued the retreating British army on the King's Highway (now Route 27) as they fled towards British-controlled New Brunswick. Washington was determined to capture British supplies and gold in New Brunswick, but he felt that his weary troops would be unable to make a forced march the 18 miles to New Brunswick and win another battle. The exhausted troops, many marching barefoot through the snow, hadn't had time to rest during the previous 40 hours of marching and battle. Washington decided instead to turn left off the road and camp at Somerset Court House, Millstone, Somerset County. When the men arrived, many fell exhausted in a field and spent the night on the frozen ground without even a blanket to protect them from the elements.

Meanwhile, Cornwallis, who had been pursuing the Continental army, didn't want to venture too far off of the King's Highway into the hilly countryside. Cornwallis was worried that Washington might have sent troops to New Brunswick to capture British stockpiles of food, ammunition, and gold. New Brunswick was an important stop in the line of communication with the main British headquarters in New York. Consequently, the British commander decided to press on with all haste to New Brunswick and passed by the road that led to the American army encampment.

Forage War in New Jersey

It was after the Battle of Princeton that the so-called "Forage War" began in earnest in the Raritan Valley. Prior to the German and British occupation of New Jersey in the fall of 1776, many New Jerseans had been loyal to the Crown, but constant violence and theft by the occupying forces led to a rise in local militia enlistments. These militias, along with the Continental Army's support during their winter quarters in Morristown, began to harass and attack the enemy at every opportunity, ultimately forcing the British to abandon New Brunswick in June 1777 and retreat to Staten Island. William Stryker, in his book The battles of Trenton and Princeton relates an interesting tale of the Millstone Somerset County Militia engaging in a foraging attack on Cornwallis's supply train during the night of January 3, 1777. Marching with all due haste towards New Brunswick after the Battle of Princeton, some of the British wagons became disabled, creating a perfect opportunity for the Millstone Light Horse troops to attack:

 

Cornwallis in his hurried march toward New Brunswick was so unfortunate as to disable a number of his baggage-wagons. He left them at the side of the road in charge of a quartermaster with a guard of two hundred men. Captain Stryker, though having with him but twenty troopers, resolved upon the capture of these stores. In the darkness of night he distributed his small force in a circle, completely surrounding the camp. The guard were suddenly astounded by a volley of musket-shots and the whistling of bullets, while from under the black arches of the bordering trees came loud and repeated shouts as if from a countless host. Demoralized by recent defeats the men incontinently fled, thinking that they had been attacked by a large force of the Americans. Their fright was not so much caused by the roar of musketry as by the unearthly yells of the lusty troopers which so suddenly broke the stillness of the night.

 

Captain Stryker was not long in so repairing the wagons that they could be hauled to a place of safety; he lost no time in making his way to Washington's camp with his treasures. The joy of the troops was unbounded when it was discovered that the wagons contained woolen clothing, of which the men stood in sore need (p. 302).

 

Sources

Battle of Princeton, 1777: Orange Key Virtual Tour of Princeton University. (2008, September 25). Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://www.princeton.edu/~oktour/virtualtour/english/Hist08-Battle.htm

Bayard, S. (1850). Anniversary of the battle of Princeton: Address delivered in Mercer Hall, Princeton. Trenton: Trentonian. Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://books.google.com

Goolrick, J. (1906). The life of General Hugh Mercer : With brief sketches of General George Washington, John Paul Jones, General George Weedon, James Monroe and Mrs. Mary Ball Washington, etc. Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://archive.org

Keene, J. (1905). Hugh Mercer. Branch historical papers of Randolph-Macon College, 2 (1), 198-213. Retrieved August 19, 2014, from http://books.google.com

Norris, E. (1917). Princeton's part in the making of the nation. In The story of Princeton (pp. 70-88). Boston: Little, Brown, and company. Retrieved August 19, 2014, from http://books.google.com

Peterson, C. (1856). Hugh Mercer. In The military heros of the revolution: With a narrative of the war of independence (pp. 264-276). Philadelphia: J.B. Smith & Co. Retrieved August 19, 2014, from http://books.google.com

Portraits of a president: Video feature. (2014, March 24). Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://www.princeton.edu/research/news/features/a/?id=12211

Revolutionary War Timeline. (2002). Retrieved August 21, 2014, from http://www.pbs.org/georgewashington/timeline/revolutionary_war.html

Stryker, W. (1898). The battles of Trenton and Princeton. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company. Retrieved August 20, 2014 from http://archive.org

Williams, J. (1905). The town. In The handbook of Princeton, (pp. 96-117). New York: The Grafton Press. Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://books.google.com

Woodhull, A. (1913). The battle of Princeton: A preliminary study. Princeton: W.C.Sinclair. Retrieved August 20, 2014, from https://archive.org

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