COL. JOHN ARMSTRONG.
Col., afterward Gen., John Armstrong was born in the north of Ireland in the year 1720. About 1746 he came to Pennsylvania, and settled in what was then called the Kittatinny, now Cumberland valley, on the southeast side of the Kittatinny or Blue mountains. The passing remark may here be made, that on Reading Howell's map of Pennsylvania, published in 1792, the valley south of Bedford and between Will's and Evit's mountains, through which flows Evit's creek, is named Cumberland. On the historical map of this state the word and query, "Armstrong (?)," are along the Kittatinny or Blue mountains in the northwest part of the present county of Franklin. It may be that is the place where Armstrong first settled, which was then a part of the western frontier of Pennsylvania.
He was a good surveyor. After the organization of Cumberland county, in 1750, he and a Mr. Lyon were employed by the then proprietaries to lay out Carlisle. In 1762 the former resurveyed and laid it out according to its present plan. He was sent, in 1754, by Gov. Morris to the then colony of Connecticut, respecting the, as it turned out to be, illegal purchase of land in Pennsylvania by the Susquehanna company, or Wyoming settlers, from the Indians. He accordingly visited New Haven and conferred with Gov. Fitch and others concerning that purchase, and on December 11, 1754, reported to Gov. Morris the discoveries which he had made while in Connecticut. He ascertained that Gov. Fitch, some of the prominent men, and the generality of the people of that colony believed that purchase to be entirely of a private nature, and contrary to the laws of both colonies, while some instanced the antiquity and extent of their charter on which the claims of that company were based.
He was selected, the next year, to be the surveyor and one of the commissioners for laying out roads from Carlisle to "Turkey Foot," in the forks of the Youghiogheny, in the present county of Somerset, and to Will's Creek, the present site of Cumberland, Md. He was appointed a captain of a company in the second battalion of provincial troops in January, 1756, and lieutenant colonel May 11 following. In 1757 he rendered valuable services in arranging the defense along the frontier. He was appointed colonel May 27, 1758, and participated as commandant of the advance division of the Pennsylvania troops in Gen. Forbes' march to and capture of Fort Du Quesne. Five years later, while Pontiac's war was raging, he recruited 300 volunteers, and in the latter part of September moved against the Indian town on the west branch of the Susquehanna, Great Island and Mauniqua the latter at the junction of Kettle creek with that river. The Indians had left, leaving behind them large quantities of provisions, which, with those towns, were destroyed. He was appointed the first on a committee of correspondence by a large meeting of the citizens of Cumberland county, held at Carlisle, July 12, 1774, for the purpose of expressing their sympathy with the people of Boston. He was also the first one on a committee appointed to tender to Benjamin Franklin, who was then president of the committee of safety, their services in raising a full battalion in that county.
He was the first of the six brigadier generals who were chosen by Congress, February 29, 1776. In the following April he was ordered to South Carolina, whither he proceeded and took command of the troops collected at Charleston, which place was in danger of being attacked by the British fleet under the command of Sir Peter Parker. Gen. Charles Lee, who was commandant of the southern department, having arrived there in the fore part of April, assumed command, keeping Gen. Armstrong with nearly 2000 men at Haddrell's Point, which was a mile or so from Fort Moultrie, as the fort on Sullivan's Island was afterward called in honor of Col. Moultrie, who, under the immediate orders of Gen. Armstrong, so heroically commanded it during the bombardment of the British fleet for ten hours, June 28, when it was defeated.
Gen. Armstrong, having resigned his position in the Continental army, April 4, 1777, was the next day appointed first brigadier general, and June 5, major general of the troops in Pennsylvania, to whom Gen. Washington wrote, July 4, and expressed his "pleasure at this honorable mark of distinction conferred upon him by the state." He afterward, during the last named year, rendered efficient and valuable services in erecting works of defense along the Delaware river, and at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, and when an invasion was apprehended at Philadelphia he was ordered thither to command the militia. His public life ended with his services in Congress, to which he was elected for the years 1779-80 and 1787-88.
Judging from a likeness of him which the writer has seen, his personal appearance must have been somewhat like that of Washington, his presence commanding and dignified and well calculated to win the esteem and confidence of those who came in contact with him. He was a citizen of Cumberland county, Pa., where he lived and died19 highly esteemed and gratefully remembered, and says Bancroft, in his cursory notice of the battle at Kittanning, "famed as inheriting the courage and piety of the Scotch covenanters." Gen. James Wilkinson, in his memoirs, pays tribute to him: "The hero of Kittanning in the war of 1756, and one of the most virtuous men who has lived in any age or country."
And William B. Reed, in his oration, delivered on the occasion of the reinterment of the remains of Gen. Mercer, paid him this just tribute: "To fearless intrepidity of the highest cast there was united in his character a strong sense of religious responsibility that rarely blends with military sentiment. He belonged to that singular race of men, the Scottish Covenanters, in whom austerity was a virtue of high price, and who, in the conflicts to which persecution trained them, never drew the sword or struck a mortal blow without the confidence, which enthusiasm seemed to give them, that agencies higher and stronger than human means were battling in their behalf, and that their sword, whether bloodless or bloody, was always 'the sword of the Lord.' Educated in these sentiments, John Armstrong never swerved from them.
He was foremost in this country's ranks, whether her cause was defense against a foreign foe or revolt against oppression in the colonial conflicts as well as war of the revolution. He was always known to kneel in humble devotion and earnest prayer before he went into battle, and never seemed to doubt the battle's fury that the work of blood was sanctified to some high purpose. Under this leader did young Mercer for a common sympathy, at least on this soil, united the Jacobite and the Cameronian fight his first American battle; and it was in the arms of the son of this his ancient general that he was carried mortally wounded from the bloody field of Princeton."
Gen. Armstrong became a Presbyterian, and was an active and influential member of the first church at Carlisle, whose first church edifice was erected in 1757.
Capt. Hugh Mercer, in the action of Kittanning, was induced by some of his men, as Col. Armstrong believed, to detach himself with his ensign and ten or twelve others from the main body by being told that the main force was in great danger and that they could take him into the road by a nearer route. He had not, however, been heard from when Col. Armstrong closed his report to Gov. Denny. He and those with him were then supposed to have been lost. From another source than Col. Armstrong's report, I learn that he was wounded in the wrist and discovered there was danger of his being surrounded by the hostile Indians, whose war-whoop and yell indicated their near approach. Having become faint from loss of blood, he concealed himself in the hollow trunk of a large tree. The Indians came there, seated themselves for rest, and then disappeared. Capt. Mercer then left his hiding place and pursued his course through a trackless wild, a hundred miles, to Fort Cumberland, subsisting, in part at least, on the body of a rattlesnake which he had killed. Some writers state that it was the battle of the Monongahela that he was separated from the main force, and that he started on that lonely tour to Fort Cumberland from Fort Du Quesne. In confirmation of the opinion that Capt. Mercer's lonely and perilous journey and escape to Fort Cumberland was when he was separated from the main force at Kittanning, instead of near Fort Du Quesne, Bancroft, in his brief account of the affair at the former place, says: "Mercer, who was wounded severely and separated from his companions, tracked his way by the stars and rivulets to Fort Cumberland," His authority for saying that Kittanning was the starting point of that journey is the above mentioned oration by William B. Reed.
Patterson's "History of the Backwoods" contains the following account of Capt. Mercer's escape, compiled from Robinson's narrative, which, though varying as to some parts of his journey from the foregoing account, which the writer has adopted as correct, is confirmatory of the fact that it was from Kittanning, and not from near Fort Du Quesne, that Capt. Mercer started on that lonely and perilous journey. It is there stated, "Capt. Mercer, who had had his arm broken in the engagement, was unhappily persuaded by some of his men to leave the main party; and, as they were old traders, they proposed to conduct him a nearer way home. They accordingly detached themselves from the company, but, unhappily, soon fell in with the Indians with whom Lieut. Hogg had had the engagement in the morning, by whom several of the party were killed, and the remainder dispersed. Mercer made his escape in company with two others. But the bandage on his arm having become loosed, they stopped to rebind it, whereby he grew faint. At that moment an Indian was seen approaching them. The Captain's two companions, having abandoned him, sprang upon his horse, from which he had alighted, and hurried away. Having thrown himself behind the log on which he sat, which happened to be overgrown with weeds, he concealed himself from the Indian, who approached to within a few feet of him, when, on discovering the two others fleeing on horseback, he gave the war-whoop and pursued them.
"Shortly afterward, Capt. Mercer crawled from his place of concealment and descended into a plum-tree bottom, where, hidden by the thick undergrowth, he remained till night. Having refreshed himself with the plums, which he found abundant, and which afterward were his only food for a whole month while he struggled on his homeward way, except a rattlesnake which the cravings of hunger had induced him to kill and eat raw.
"One day when he had reached the north side of the Allegheny mountain, he discovered a person whom he supposed to be an Indian. The other saw him. They both took trees and remained a long time. At length Mercer concluded to advance and meet his enemy; but when he came near he found him to be one of his own men. Both rejoiced to meet, while both were so faint and weary that they were scarcely able to walk. They pushed on over the mountain, and were not far from Frankstown, when the soldier lay down, not expecting evermore to rise. Mercer struggled on about seven miles further, when he also lay down on the leaves, abandoning all hope of ever reaching home. There was at that time a company of Cherokees in British pay; and being at Fort Lyttleton, some of them had been sent out to search along the foot of the mountain to see if there were any signs of Indians on that route. Those Indians by chance came upon Mercer while he was unable to rise. They gave him food, and he told them of the other. They took Mercer's track and found the soldier, and brought him to Fort Lyttleton, having carried him on a bier of their own making."
Captain, afterward General, Hugh Mercer was a native of Scotland, born near Aberdeen about 1723, liberally educated, a physician who had acted as surgeon's assistant at the battle of Culloden. He emigrated to Pennsylvania and settled near the present town of Mercersburg, Franklin county, and thence to Virginia, where he settled. Before he engaged in Armstrong's expedition, he had been engaged with Washington in the Indian wars of 1755. Having been promoted to the rank of colonel, he participated in the campaign under Gen. Forbes, was present at the capture of Fort Du Quesne, and after its evacuation by the French and occupation by the English, was left in command of it, or rather Fort Pitt, during a part of 1759, and there judiciously participated in the conference held with the nine chiefs of the Six Nations, Shawanese and Delawares, from a town up the Ohio (Allegheny) about a hundred miles above Venango (Franklin), near the Boughelloor, on January 4, 6 and 7 of that year. They "came from Weayough, the king, or Great Chief of Konnawagogh," who had heard "that their friends, the English and Delawares, had talked together, and we (they) are come to talk with you likewise." Whether they came down the Allegheny or took the land route from Venango to Fort Pitt, is not stated. At that season of the year, when there was probably too much ice in the upper Allegheny for navigation, they likely took the other route.
On the evening of the 6th five of the head-counsellors went to the tent of Col. Mercer, where he and Capt. Ward were present, who informed the chiefs that they were "to unbosom themselves and freely open their minds" to those officers, which they did, telling them, among other things, that "the Delawares and Shawanese are not to be depended upon." They made quite a long speech, giving assurances of their fealty to the English, strings of wampum, and finally a large belt. On the afternoon of the 7th, the officers of the garrison and a large number of Indians being present, the chiefs made another speech, to which Col. Mercer replied, concluding thus: "Brothers! When the French came here, they made us quarrel with our good old friends, and by so doing they have hurt both you and us; your brothers, the English, are a great people. Their eyes are now opened, and while the sun shines and the rivers run, they will never suffer a Frenchman to sit here. Brothers! I return you this belt; what you have now said must be told to Gen. Forbes; if you have a mind to send this belt to him, I will send one along with you." The Six Nations said: "Brothers! Listen and be attentive to what I say; I am sorry that you have returned the belt which I gave you; but if you will give me one keg of rum, I shall feel perfectly well again."
Another conference commenced on July 4, and continued at intervals until the 16th, between George Croghan, deputy agent to Sir William Johnson, Col. Mercer, commandant, and a number of other officers of the garrison, and chiefs and warriors of the Six Nations, Delawares, Shawanese and Wyandots. About five hundred Indians were there during the conference. The object of this conference seemed to be the settlement and confirmation of peace, and the regulation of trade between the English and the Indians, the finale of which was, that at the request of the Indians and with the approbation of Col. Mercer, Capt. Croghan sent a speech by two Wyandot to Venango, in which it was asserted, among other things, that "the English are not come here to war with the Indians, but to carry on trade and commerce with all nations of them, as far as the sun-setting," and sent along with the speech twelve fathoms of white wampum. Indians of the several nations there represented sent their speeches to enforce Croghan's.
At the beginning of the Revolutionary War Col. Mercer left a large medical practice and sided with the colonists. On June 5, 1776, he was appointed a brigadier-general. "It is not improbable," says Reed, "that his services were solicited by Washington himself," whose confidence he enjoyed beyond most of his fellow-officers, "as it appears from his correspondence that the Commander-in-chief repaired to Philadelphia to concert with Congress plans for the organization of the army, and that he remained there until the day after the date of his commission, and those of two others of his most valued friends.20 General Mercer soon left, and forever, his peaceful home, his young wife and children, and joined the army at New York."
General Mercer afterward won distinction, especially in the battles of Trenton and Princeton. While at Bristol, Pa., his quarters were at Mr. Keith's, a little out of town. It is related that when the American army marched to McConkey's Ferry, he told Mrs. Keith that he had dreamed the previous night that he had been attacked and overpowered by a huge black bear.
In the battle of Princeton he commanded the van of the American army. While exerting the utmost valor and activity his horse was killed under him. Being thus dismounted he was surrounded by some British soldiers, with whom, when they refused to give quarter, he fought desperately until he was completely overpowered. After stabbing him with their bayonets and inflicting several blows on his head with the butt ends of their muskets they left him, under the impression that he was dead, on the field, whence he was taken to the house of Thomas Clark, some of whose kindred now reside at Princeton.
Says Barber in his Historical Collections of New Jersey: "Mr. Joseph Clark states that General Mercer was knocked down about fifty yards from his barn, and after the battle, was assisted by his two aids into the house of Thomas Clark, a new house about one and a quarter miles from the college." He was nursed by Miss Sarah Clark and a colored servant. "Nor was his dying bed," says Reed, "a bed of utter desolation. The house whither the wounded soldier was carried was tenanted during that day by two delicate females, who, wearing the garb and professing the principles of peace, were too brave to fly from the field of battle or the bed of death. While the conflict raged around their humble dwelling those tender, helpless women lost no confidence in the protection which the God of innocence rarely withholds and when the dying warrior was brought to their threshold and left beneath their roof, their ministering charities were ready to soothe his solitary anguish and smooth the passage to the grave. One of these American women of better times has died near Princeton within the last few months (1840), aged upward of ninety years. It was part of her household story that she had watched the deathbed of a soldier of the Revolution."
General Mercer died January 12, in the arms of Major George Lewis, a nephew of General Washington, who was commissioned by his uncle to watch over him. His mangled corpse was removed under military escort to Philadelphia, and there exposed in the Coffee House, with the design of exciting the indignation of the people. Though a lion in battle he was uncommonly placid, and almost diffident in private life. That he should thus perish at the age of fifty-six sent a thrill of anguish and indignation through every patriotic American heart. Gen. Wilkinson in his Memories remarks: "In Gen. Mercer, we lost at Princeton a chief who, for education, disposition and patriotism, was second to no man but the Commander-in-chief, and was qualified to fill the highest trusts of the country."
It had been erroneously stated that Gen. Mercer was bayoneted after having surrendered. That statement is corrected in Custis' "Recollections of Washington." When Major Lewis expressed the extreme indignation which prevailed in the American army at the treatment, the magnanimous Mercer observed: The tale which you have heard, George is untrue. My death is owing to myself. I was on foot endeavoring to rally my men, who had given way before the superior discipline of the enemy, when I was brought to the ground by a blow from a musket. At the same moment the enemy discovered my rank, exulted in their having taken a rebel general, as they termed me, and bid me ask for quarters. I felt that I deserved not so opprobrious an epithet, and determined to die as I had lived, an honored soldier in a just and righteous cause; and without begging my life or making a reply, I lunged my sword at the nearest man. They then bayoneted and left me.
While the surgeons were dressing his wounds, of which he had received thirteen, the General remarked: "Never mind those; they are mere scratches. Look under my arm, and there you will find a fellow that will soon do my business."
Gen. Mercer was buried in Christ Church cemetery, Philadelphia, January 16, 1777, where for years a plain slab with the initials H.M. denoted his last resting place. His bones, being remarkably well preserved, were raised November 26, 1840, and reinterred in Laurel Hill cemetery, over which an appropriate monument was erected, on the north side of which is this inscription: "He received a medal from the corporation of Philadelphia for his courage and conduct against the Indian settlement of Kittanning."
A fort on the Delaware, towns and counties in various states bear his honored and illustrious name.
Captain, afterward General, James Potter,21 whose voucher or pay-list is alone given, was born "on the bank of the river Foyle, Tyrone, Ireland, in" 1729, and was about twelve years of age when his father, John Potter, landed at New Castle, Delaware. In 1742 he was a lieutenant in a border militia company, and captain in 1756, in Armstrong's expedition to Kittanning, in which they became attached friends. He was in active service as major and lieutenant colonel in 1763 and 1764, during all the period he was a successful farmer. He was eminent and influential in the agitation which preceded the beginning of the revolutionary war. There was not, it is said, a meeting of the patriotic inhabitants of the then large county of Northumberland held without his presence and influenced by his advice.
He was appointed a colonel in 1775, and a brigadier general along with John Armstrong, John Cadwalader and Samuel Meredith all of whose names, it will be perceived, in some of the more local sketches have been impressed upon the face of this county. April 5, 1877. Potter's services in the campaign of that year were very distinguished. With the troops under his command in the counties of Philadelphia, Chester and Delaware he gained for Washington important information respecting the movements of the enemy, and with great vigilance gave all possible annoyance to the foraging parties sent out from Philadelphia. While the army under Washington were marching to Valley Forge, after a portion of it had crossed the Schuykill at Matson's Ford December 11, it was found that the enemy under Cornwallis were in force on the other side. Washington wrote: "They were met by Gen. Potter with great bravery and gave them every possible opposition till he was obliged to retreat from their superior numbers," and the next spring he wrote from Valley Forge: "If the state of Gen. Potter's affairs will admit of returning to the army, I shall be exceedingly glad to see him, as his activity and vigilance have been much wanted during the winter." He was Vice President of this state; was commissioned a major general in 1782; and was one of the council of censors in 1784, when he was within a few votes of defeating for President of the council the very distinguished John Dickinson.
He rendered military service during the entire revolution, and won the confidence of Washington, Greene, Pickering, Mifflin and his fellow brigadiers. He resided in Penn's Valley in the present county of Center from 1772 until his death in November, 1789, being then one of the associate judges of the courts of Northumberland county, and leaving a very large and valuable estate. He was stout, broad-shouldered, courageous, five feet and nine inches in height, with a dark complexion, a strong type of the Scotch-Irish race. His father was the first sheriff of Cumberland county, Pa. His family relations have furnished two other Generals Potter, one United States Senator, a Governor of this state, several law judges and members of the State Legislature. He served with marked fidelity and acceptance in the various civil and military positions which he filled, and was in private life one of the most enterprising and successful of all our revolutionary officers.
[The writer regrets that he has been unable to ascertain the parentage, native place and antecedents of Lieut. James Hogg, who so dauntlessly braved an overwhelming force of the enemy, immortalized his name and rendered Blanket Hill memorable by his sanguinary struggle and heroic death.]
Such are but glimpses of the illustrious careers of gallant soldiers who in September, 1756, moistened the soil of what is now Armstrong county with their blood in defense of the families, the homes, the security and the happiness of the settlers along the then frontier of the Province of Pennsylvania.
Source: Page(s) 13-59, History of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania by Robert Walker Smith, Esq.
Chicago: Waterman, Watkins & Co., 1883.
Transcribed January 1999 by Jeffrey Bish for the Armstrong County Smith Project.
Published 1999 by the Armstrong County Pennsylvania Genealogy Project.