Hugh Mercer was born in Scotland in 1726. At fifteen years of age, he studied medicine at Aberdeen College. After graduating as a doctor, Mercer joined the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie and became Assistant Surgeon. Mercer was also present at the Battle of Culloden. The battle was a loss for the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie and all members were now considered fugitives. Mercer spent months in hiding in Scotland, then finally paid his way onto a ship and sailed to The American Colonies.
Mr. Mercer settled in an area of Pennsylvania, now called Mercersburg. In 1755, after some years practicing medicine, Mercer began treating soldiers who had been wounded in the attempt to take Fort Duquesne. Eventually Mercer began fighting in the French and Indian War, commissioned as a Captain in a Pennsylvania Regiment.
During an attack on a Native American village, Mercer was wounded and separated from his fellow soldiers. Without supplies or medical aid, Mercer hiked roughly one hundred miles to Fort Shirley. Once finding his way to the fort, Mercer was promoted to Colonel. It was around the time of his promotion that he met and became friends with Colonel George Washington.
After the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, George Washington persuaded Mercer to begin practicing medicine again and open an apothecary. After befriending some men from Virginia, Mercer moved to Fredericksburg,began buying and selling land in and around the city, became a respected member of the community, and began his medical practice.
At the corner of Caroline and Amelia St. you’ll find a small wooden building that is both out of place, and perfectly at home on the streets of Fredericksburg. A Grand Union flag, and a wooden sign hang out front, gently creaking and billowing in the gusts caused by trucks rumbling by or perhaps the bluster of autumn winds. The narrow door opens up to a somewhat large room, large with respect to the size of the whole building, a long table with all sorts of jars and tools sits at the end of the room, and a stone fireplace to the right of the entrance. In it’s own form, a right cozy place.
Historians that double as actors will graciously give you a tour of the property, in period clothes of course, happily showing the herbs, concoctions, and remedies all used by Doctor Mercer on site, many years ago.
In the surgery room, live leeches squirm around in large vases of water, old, somewhat rusted amputation tools lie on a table, more herbs and roots lie around, giving the whole building a predominantly camphorous and pleasant smell. Back of the surgery room and up the stairs with floorboards affixed with horseshoe nails, you can see Mr. Mercer’s bedroom. A spacious room with a bed, some chest of drawers and the like, another stone fireplace, and a large thread spinner. Not a glamorous castle, but a humble home and shop that Mercer took great pride in.
Hugh Mercer’s Apothecary Museum is a splendid place to learn about one of our nation’s founding fathers, or perhaps the bygone art of herbal medicine. If your interest is not peaked by medicine or Mercer himself, perhaps you are simply a history buff that wants to time travel to the infant days of the United States, walking on creaky floors and speaking with the wenches in a forgotten dialect. If you are ever in Historic Fredericksburg and looking for something fun and stimulating of the mind, stop by Hugh Mercer’s Apothecary, it will not disappoint.
Article and photo credit: B. Edmisten Photography