Throughout George Washington’s momentous military career, some of his closest comrades were Scots. Stephen Brumwell, author of a new book about America’s first president, explores their impact
ON THE morning of 3 January 1777, in a frost-encrusted field outside Princeton, New Jersey, a veteran Scottish soldier went down fighting for American liberty. Following orders from his commander and friend George Washington, Brigadier General Hugh Mercer had led a spearhead force of Virginians in a surprise assault upon the British garrison of the little college town.
But Mercer’s brigade ran into a redcoat regiment poised for action and, following a brief fire-fight, was rebuffed by a furious bayonet charge. Unhorsed and isolated, Mercer was damned for a rebel and warned to surrender. Instead, he lashed out with his sword until an exasperated redcoat knocked him down with the butt of his musket, and others skewered him with their bayonets. Stunned and bleeding, Mercer was left for dead as the British pursued their fleeing enemies.
Rallied by Washington and reinforced by fresh troops, Mercer’s men eventually returned to the fight, helping to clinch a crucial victory in the American War of Independence. Mercer, who died more than a week later of his wounds, became a martyr for the revolutionaries, his blood sacrifice commemorated in a dramatic canvas by the celebrated painter John Trumbull. It was a fitting climax to an extraordinary career, which began as it ended, in rebellion against British rule.
Born in Aberdeenshire, Mercer had barely completed his studies at Aberdeen’s Marischal College before being swept up in the excitement and carnage of the ’45. As a 20-year-old surgeon’s mate in the army of Charles Edward Stuart, he was present at Culloden in April 1746, and in the wake of that crushing Jacobite defeat swiftly put the Atlantic between himself and crown retribution.
Mercer made a fresh start as a doctor for settlers on Pennsylvania’s rugged Appalachian frontier. A decade after Culloden, when friction between Britain and France sparked a colonial war, he was commissioned a captain of his adopted colony’s troops. In September 1756, Mercer was wounded in an audacious long-range raid against Kittanning, a village inhabited by France’s Native American allies. Separated from his men, the injured Mercer spent two weeks trekking to safety through a hundred miles of wilderness, sustained by the flesh of a rattlesnake. Two years later Mercer fought alongside George Washington in the gruelling but ultimately victorious campaign to capture Fort Duquesne, site of modern Pittsburgh.
The Scot and the Virginian forged an enduring friendship and after the war Washington persuaded Mercer to move south to his own colony. At Fredericksburg, where Mercer set up a medical practice and apothecary’s shop, he and Washington were brother masons.
When the American colonies rejected British authority in 1775, Mercer’s reputation as a born leader gained him the rank of brigadier, and recognition as one of Washington’s most trusted subordinates.
The “brave and worthy General Mercer”, as a grieving Washington described him after Princeton, was just one among many Scottish fighting men who encountered America’s first president in the course of his long military career. Like Hugh Mercer, a surprising number of them had crossed the Atlantic with very different objectives – seeking to save lives, not take them. This phenomenon reflected Scotland’s place at the cutting edge of medical research and teaching, with four universities – one each in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and two in Aberdeen – generating a steady stream of qualified doctors keen to ply their profession throughout Britain’s empire.
They included Adam Stephen, another Aberdeenshire man who grew to know Washington well. Studying at King’s College, Aberdeen, and the University of Edinburgh he reached America after a brief spell as a surgeon in the Royal Navy. Stephen first served under Washington’s command during the ill-fated campaign of 1754, which ended in humiliating surrender to the French and Native Americans at Fort Necessity.
Next year, Stephen, like Washington, was lucky to escape unscathed from the shambles of Major-General Edward Braddock’s catastrophic defeat on the Monongahela River, near Fort Duquesne. In the summer of 1776, when Washington was preparing to face a major British assault upon New York City, he wrote to his old comrade, reminding him of the dangers they had faced – and survived – as young men, and hoping that “Providence” would continue to preserve them in the days ahead.
Unlike Hugh Mercer’s, however, Stephen’s career as an American revolutionary officer ended ingloriously. Like many of his comrades, Stephen drank, and in the conflict’s cockpit of Pennsylvania, locally distilled whisky was not hard to find. In October 1777, Stephen’s alleged drunkenness was blamed for confusion that contributed to a galling defeat for Washington at Germantown, near Philadelphia. Cut adrift by his exasperated former friend, Stephen was court-martialed on charges of “unofficerlike behaviour” and being “frequently intoxicated”, stripped of his rank of major general and dismissed. In happier days, during the 1758 campaign against Fort Duquesne, Stephen, Mercer and Washington had all served under another Scot, Brigadier General John Forbes. A native of Fife, as his obituary in the Pennsylvania Gazette noted, Forbes too had “been bred to the profession of physic”, but soon turned to soldiering, securing a commission in the Scots Greys and rising to become the regiment’s lieutenant colonel before transferring to the infantry.
John Forbes exemplified another trend that guaranteed a strong Scottish military presence in North America during the second half of the 18th century. In both the “French and Indian War” in which the young Washington learned his trade, and the subsequent Revolutionary War, a disproportionate number of Scots soldiered in the British army. Although Scotland’s population was about 12 per cent of the total for the British Isles, it provided around a quarter of Britain’s military manpower. In the Americas, where exclusively Scottish Highland battalions first established their legendary reputation, the proportion was even higher.
While Scots who had fought for King George II typically remained loyal to his grandson, George III, enough of them backed the rebels to make their mark upon Washington’s officer corps. For example, Arthur St Clair, from Thurso, Caithness, was a redcoat subaltern under Major General James Wolfe at Quebec before taking a brigadier general’s commission in the service of Congress. The combat-hardened St Clair was credited with a key role in urging Washington to adopt the daring strategy that delivered victory at Princeton.
John Forbes died in 1759, long before the revolutionary crisis forced men such as St Clair to choose between Crown and Congress, yet he remained an influential role model for Washington, who many years later remembered him as a “brave and good officer”. Above all, Forbes provided an example of determination in the face of daunting logistical difficulties, one that Washington followed during his own testing years heading Congress’s Continental Army.
Of all Washington’s Scottish comrades, none knew him better than his personal physician, Dr James Craik. Born near Dumfries, and a student of the University of Edinburgh, Craik had emigrated in 1750, practising medicine in the Caribbean and Virginia before becoming surgeon to the Virginia Regiment. Craik not only shared the dangers of Washington’s early frontier campaigns, but was at his side from the notoriously harsh encampment at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78, to the decisive victory at Yorktown in 1781. Washington prized Craik’s loyalty, distinguishing him in his will as “my compatriot in arms, and old and intimate friend”.
Despite all the risks that he had faced as a fearless front-line fighter, George Washington was never so much as scratched by his assorted enemies. Ironically, it was the faithful Craik who helped to achieve what the French, Native Americans and British had all failed to accomplish. Like most of his peers, Craik believed in the benefits of medicinal bleedings. He had tapped the feverish Washington in 1757, an experience that the young colonel was robust enough to survive. But in December 1799, when the 67-year-old former president contracted a severe throat infection, Craik’s ready lancet drained his strength, and in the opinion of some, hastened his death.
Despite such controversy it was apt that Craik should share Washington’s final hours. His presence not only sealed a friendship spanning nearly half a century, but symbolised the far wider contribution of Scots in helping to win American independence.
• Stephen Brumwell’s George Washington: Gentleman Warrior is published by Quercus. His chapter on The Scottish Military Experience in North America, 1756-83 appears in The Definitive History of Military Scotland, edited by Edward Spiers, Jeremy Crang and Matthew Strickland, forthcoming this summer with Edinburgh University Press.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West