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Sword of Princeton hero to be displayed at American Revolution museum

When General Hugh Mercer lay mortally wounded on the cold battlefield earth of Princeton, sword in hand, his officers and men and famed surgeon Benjamin Rush attended to him, carefully helping the fallen soldier to a bed in the Thomas Clarke house nearby on the battlefield.

Nine days he lingered, but Rush could not save him, and Mercer died, on Jan. 12, 1777, from the severe wounds and rifle-butt blows he received during the Battle of Princeton.

His body was then taken to the City Tavern in Philadelphia, where the beaten remains lay in state, testimony for all to see that the British were indeed a cruel and brutal foe.

American leaders were not above exploiting their fallen heroes to rally the populace around a martyr.

On Thursday, 240 years after Scottish-born Mercer's death, the kilted sons of the St. Andrew's Society of Philadelphia presented his sword, one of the society's most cherished possessions, to the Museum of the American Revolution, where it will be on loan and exhibited when the museum opens on April 19.

At the same time, the museum unveiled a unique painting, a panoramic scene of the Princeton battlefield, a dying Mercer in the central background, and his old friend, George Washington, on horseback in the foreground.

The painting is the work of Mercer's son, William "Billy" Mercer, deaf and unable to speak, who labored with Charles Willson Peale and brother James Peale to copy James Peale's own rendering of the battlefield. Both Peales served in the Continental Army and were present during the Battles of Trenton and Princeton fighting.

The painting, on loan from the Philadelphia History Museum, will be exhibited along with the sword, creating much of the gallery tableaux illuminating a man that St. Andrew's president  Stephen W. Armstrong  called "one of America's unsung heroes."

R. Scott Stephenson, museum vice president and head of collections, said he had never seen Billy Mercer's painting before, "though I've been looking at it in books since I was 7 or so," he said.

"I wonder," Stephenson said, "about Billy Mercer. How he was able to do this. How Peale was able to communicate with him and teach someone who could not hear or speak. And it's a painting by an orphan that includes the death of his father."

The sword is small with a straight, triangle-shaped blade.

"It's silver-hilted," Stephenson said. "Not particularly ornate, not overly decorated. … It is very effective at close range. It's a poking, stabbing sword."

This was the sword Mercer drew when surrounded by British soldiers at Princeton. He held it as they jabbed him repeatedly with bayonets. And it is the sword depicted in Billy Mercer's painting of his dying father.

Mercer, trained as a doctor, fought in the Jacobite Rebellion and fled Britain for America in 1747. He fought in the French and Indian War, and in 1757 he was severely wounded, trekking more than 100 miles in the wilderness before being assisted by Native Americans. During this period, Mercer formed a lifelong friendship with George Washington, who urged him to establish his surgery in Fredericksburg, Va. Mercer took the advice.

Throughout his life in America, he was a member of the St. Andrew's Society, a charitable group that assisted Scots in the New World. When Mercer died, his society brethren arranged for his funeral and burial at Christ Church. In 1840, the society arranged for Mercer's permanent interment at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Armstrong, society president, said that as Mercer lay dying in the Clarke house, he began giving away his possessions.

The sword went to Mercer's  adjutant, Jacob Morgan. Morgan's daughter-in-law, Helen, then presented the sword to the society in 1840. An engraving on the hilt memorializes the gift.

For Stephenson, the sword speaks directly to the contemporary moment.

"He was a refugee from a foreign war, an immigrant," said Stephenson. "We can reach back into the past and empathetically communicate with people who are not unlike ourselves, in situations not unlike those we may find today."