Tuesday, December 29, 2015

General Hugh Mercer: Jacobite, Doctor, Symbol of the American Revolution

General Hugh Mercer was a Jacobite who fought at the Battle of Culloden (1746) as a 20 year old surgeon and died as a general in George Washington's Continental Army, fatally wounded at the Battle of Princeton in 1777, now aged 51. Washington said of him, "In his experience and judgement you may repose great confidence."

From 1 April 2016 there will be a permanent exhibition at the Fraserburgh Heritage Centre (up on Scotland's North East Coast) highlighting this famous son of the area.

Born at Pitsligo Kirk Manse (near Fraserburgh) in 1726, he studied medicine at Marischal College Aberdeen from age 15. In 1745 he enlisted in the Jacobite Army (Pitsligo's Regiment of Horse) as a Surgeon. Fighting alongside him was his cousin, Thomas Mercer of Auchnacant, an Aide de Camp.

Following the disaster of Culloden, Mercer spent months in hiding, and in 1747 bought his way on to a ship and settled at Mercersburg, Pennsylvania where he practised medicine.

Eight years later, his taste for adventure resurfaced and he joined the British Army, not as a doctor but as an infantry officer, and was prominent in the struggle against the French for Fort Duquesne. Having captured the fort and (now renamed Fort Pitt, the origin of Pittsburg) in 1758 Colonel Mercer was left in charge and at one stage the new fort was recorded as 'Mercer's Fort'.

He returned to medicine in Fredericksburg Virginia where he married and had five children. At the outset of the Revolution in 1776, he joined George Washington and is credited with the plan to cross the iced over Delaware and surprise the British Army at Trenton. Next month, though, his brigade became separated from the main army on the way to Princetown and he died of his wounds. There is a memorial plaque outside the house where he died.

Amongst Mercer's many descendants was General George S. Patton Jr. of World War Two fame.

Some might comment that, although he looks very much a part of the establishment, he was a rebel all his life!

General Hugh Mercer Memorial Statue, Washington District, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Clashing Cultures

I watched episode nine of the Outlander TV series last night... where Jamie takes his belt to Claire for her disobedience: "You've done wrong to all the men and you must suffer for it". She then twice makes him promise, at the point of a dirk, never to do such a thing again. This tension between cultures is one of the charms of the books and Diana Gabaldon has put her finger on an enduring issue.

For Claire, an intelligent liberated woman of the 20th century, such barbarity is unacceptable, indeed contemptible. But, stripped of modern ethical standards, clan society in the 18th century worked pretty well, and Claire was operating in a cultural vacuum (her culture had not yet been born!).

The episode put me in mind of  Alistair Moffat's comments in his excellent book on Hadrian's Wall, on the relative barbarism of Romans and the invaded, artistic but illiterate Celts, "In AD 105 the Emperor Trajan sent 50,000 captives back to Rome to be butchered by gladiators for the amusement of spectators... very civilised".

Where a culture has superior military power, it somehow believes that its values are superior to those who are less developed, less able to defend themselves.

In 1919 the Aliab Dinka of Southern Sudan, naked, spear-carrying cattle herders were not paying their taxes and, when confronted, had the temerity to outwit the government forces and kill the provincial governor. The Lewis gun equipped punitive expedition burned villages and drove off 7000 cattle, sold to fund the occupying force. Who were the Barbarians?

Moffat also writes of the aftermath of Queen Boudica's rebellion, "Paullinus scoured the countryside for fugitives, allies, or even neutrals... smoke rose on every horizon as the soldiers punished southern Britain for daring to rebel". The same man dealt with the island of Anglesey, "In the days after the battle the killing went on: Paullinus ordered his men to cut down the sacred groves of oak trees on Mona, and as far as possible extirpate the cult of the druids".

The extirpation of a cult was more or less exactly what the Duke of Cumberland had in mind with his brutal and indiscriminate suppression of the Highlands in 1746. The violence and sense of superiority of the British Army of the day is only a little exaggerated in the TV series.

That was 270 years ago. But the conviction that more developed cultures are superior (and should be imposed) still endures.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Gallipoli 1915 and Culloden 1746

My adopted town of Hawick remembers its dead. In May I visited the Gallipoli peninsular, scene of a disastrous campaign in 1915, where there is a marble shield to the Hawick fallen. 86 Hawick men lost their lives on 12 July 1915 and each year there is a service of remembrance here. Today, the centenary, there was an expanded ceremony; each of the 86 names was read out, the Last Post sounded: They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old... 

The Hawick men were from 4th Battalion, Kings Own Scottish Borderers. They were ordered to take a non existent line of trenches and ended up milling around in the open under heavy machine gun and artillery fire. Only two officers ended the day uninjured; seventy men from a unit of about 700 were fit for duty next day.

There are many heart wrenching tales from Gallipoli. Many are scarcely believable accounts of sheltering for days in the baking sun behind rotting bodies (a ready breeding ground for millions of flies). But the story that particularly caught my attention was that of Brigadier Scott Moncrieff. At the Battle of Gully Ravine, he watched his men being cut to pieces as they attacked into Turkish machine gun fire. He was ordered to attack again and felt he had no choice but to be at the head of his men. He led them 'over the top' and was hit in the head by a bullet. The attack failed.

The grave of Brigadier Scott Moncrieff
It reminded me of Cameron of Lochiel ('The Gentle Lochiel') at the Battle of Culloden in 1746; he was a polyglot, expert forester and much respected clan chief. He must have known that, after the failure of the night attack, the situation at Culloden was hopeless. But all the same he bounded across that moor in his powdered wig, brandishing a broadsword, endeavouring to engage the British Army.

But Lochiel did not reach the government front line as his legs caught the grapeshot of their cannons; he was carried back to his home at Achnacarry and escaped to France where he died.

Cameron of Lochiel (1700 - 1748)
Both men willingly put themselves in certain mortal danger in a battle they knew would be lost, leading their men in the full knowledge that it was probably all in vain. It was their duty. Better to die a hero than live a coward.