Hugh Mercer’s Last Companion

While walking through the Willis cemetery, located at the top of Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg, Virginia, I encountered the grave of an American patriot from the Revolutionary War, George Washington Lewis.  Lewis, as it turns out was George Washington’s nephew and played a role in the Trenton-Princeton campaign in 1776 and 1777.

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A relatively modern stone marks the location of George Lewis’ grave in the Willis cemetery on Marye’s Heights. (Author photo)

Lewis was born in 1757 in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  His mother was Betty Washington Lewis (George Washington’s sister).  He was named after his uncle and was about 18 years old when the Revolutionary War broke out.  In November of 1775, he accompanied his aunt, Martha Washington, up to Cambridge, Massachusetts when she went to visit her husband during the first winter of the war.  Lewis hoped to serve in some capacity in the war.  Despite being wary of engaging in nepotism, Washington appointed young Lieutenant George Lewis as second in command of his personal Commander-in-Chief Guard.  Lewis served honorably and was made a Captain by the end of 1776.

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Although no known painting of George Lewis exists, this is a silhouette of him. (Author photo)

However, the war was going very poorly for the American cause at the end of 1776, and it began to look as though Great Britain would be victorious.  Then in the course of ten days, Washington made a daring Christmas crossing of the Delaware River and attacked the town of Trenton, New Jersey.  Lewis participated in the crossing and the battle alongside his uncle.  After victory at Trenton, Washington sneaked around the flank of a larger British army and attacked the British rear guard outside of Princeton, New Jersey.  During the furious fighting at Princeton, another fellow Fredericksburg, Virginian, General Hugh Mercer suffered numerous bayonet wounds from British soldiers.  The Americans were victorious, but quickly evacuated the area Princeton for Morristown, New Jersey.

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The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777 by John Trumbull. (Yale University Art Gallery)

Washington, however, learned of his general and friend Hugh Mercer being grievously wounded.  Washington sent Captain George Lewis under a flag of truce through the British lines so that he might tend to the wounded Mercer.  Dr. Benjamin Rush also visited Mercer at this time.  Even though a British surgeon thought Mercer might make a recovery, Mercer (a medical doctor himself) pointed out to Lewis a bayonet wound under his arm that he believed would ultimately prove fatal.  For the next nine days, Rush and Lewis tended to Mercer on his bed in the Thomas Clarke House.  There was nothing more they could do and on January 12, 1777, Hugh Mercer died in the arms of George Lewis.

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The room in the Thomas Clarke House where Hugh Mercer died in George Lewis’ arms. (Author photo)

Mercer’s body was brought to the city of Philadelphia where it was displayed in the City Tavern so that people could see his mutilated body.  Mercer quickly became a martyr for the renewed American cause.

Lewis would go on to serve for three more years in the war and resigned in 1779.  After the war, he settled down outside of Fredericksburg in King George County.  When his uncle died in 1799, Lewis was left one of Washington’s swords with the injunction “not to unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defence, or in defence of their Country and its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof.”  Something Lewis had seen first hand when Mercer died at Princeton.

Lewis finally died in 1821 and was buried in the Willis Cemetery in Fredericksburg to rest in peace.  However, peace was not long lived.  In 1862, during the American Civil War, Confederate artillery unlimbered just outside of the cemetery wall.  Lewis’ grave would have literally shook as Confederate artillery fired on oncoming troops and Union shells barraged the hillside during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

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The gate to the Willis cemetery still bears the scars of war.  On the left pillar a large scar from a cannonball can still be seen today. (Author photo)

Today, though peace has returned to this area, Lewis’ grave serves as physical link between the Civil War and George Washington and the military campaign that saved the American cause in 1776.  You can read more about the Battle of Princeton in my brand new book: Victory or Death: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton.

Sources:

Custis, George Washington Parke. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. New York: Derby and Jackson, 1860. Pages 181 – 184.

Last Will and Testament of George Washington, 1799.

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