George Mercer, a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, took a summer trip to Saratoga Springs with a buddy after sightseeing at West Point. He had a pretty good time, but not a great time.
He enjoyed the nightlife, but wasn’t impressed with the ladies; he went boating on Lake George, but complained of the heat. Sounds like today, right? Try 1860.
If Yelp had been around 160 years ago, young George Mercer would have given the Saratoga/Lake George area mixed reviews. He was a Georgian trying to have a little fun during a time of national crisis: four months before South Carolina seceded from the Union and triggered a Civil War.
As it is today, Saratoga Springs was a trendy resort destination in the antebellum era, especially for Southern whites. Drawn to the healing springs, mountain vistas, legendary soirees, and the malaria-free environment, enslaver elites and their hangers-on flocked to Saratoga. Also, like today, it was a locale where the line between business and pleasure often blurred.
In addition to Southern enslavers seeking respite from the constant stress of oppressing their human property, politicians and businessmen of all stripes flocked to the springs. Pennsylvanian James Buchanan planned his successful 1856 presidential run there; US Senator John Slidell of Louisiana charted Democratic Party policy at his Saratoga summer residence; and New York banker August Belmont (namesake of the Belmont Stakes) strategized financing for the political campaigns that served his interests.
George Mercer, however, was just an up-and-comer looking to have a good time and, privately, to find some relief from the painful tumor on his groin. After surveying West Point, Mercer and his associate headed to Saratoga Springs and secured a room at the Union Hotel. “Mr. R. F. Jones and I got a good double room at the Union; we found it an excellent house,” he confided to his journal. “Many southern people were in this delightful watering place: among others Mr. and Mrs. Tefft and the Hardees of Savannah.”
Not surprisingly, he gravitated towards fellow Georgians, indulged in pleasurable perambulations, and soaked up the springs. “I found pleasant companions in Messrs. Moore and Bones of Augusta,” he continued. “We passed the day talking, walking and reading, the New York papers (which came by the lightning express train and reached Saratoga at 9 ½ am) going to the Spring, playing billiards, eating, drinking milk punches and champagne cock-tails, and at night, watching the dancers at the Union and Congress Hall.”
While imbibing “champagne cock-tails,” a novelty at the time, Mercer couldn’t help but size-up the fairer sex. Sadly, he was less than impressed. Only one local lass caught his eye. “There was not much beauty: two of the most attractive young ladies were Miss Foote and Miss Barker, both of Saratoga. I shall never forget the loveliness of the latter at the Congress Hall Ball.” Whether it was Miss Barker or the springs, Mercer apparently had a grand time, writing “I improved rapidly at Saratoga.”
The next day, he and his companions (no mention of Miss Barker) visited Lake George, made their way to Lake Champlain, then supped at Ticonderoga. “We then rode in a large open wagon four miles to the upper end of Lake George,” he recorded. “The weather was lovely though warm, and the ladies enjoyed the ride exceedingly. We then took the boat and passed down the entire lake, thirty six miles. It is a lovely sheet of water: I have seen none more beautiful except Lake Lucerne. Here Cooper laid the scenes of the Last of the Mohicans. We reached the Fort William Henry Hotel about sundown: it is a fine large house commanding a splendid view of the lake. At night we danced.”
Climate proved a real challenge, as any upstater knows. On his first night, Mercer complained of being too cold: “The weather was so cool that Winter clothes were necessary and fires grateful.” Then he was appalled by the sudden heat and humidity, saying he’d rather be in Georgia than New York: “In Saratoga & Lake George this summer I suffered more bodily discomfort with the thermometer at 82° than I usually do in Savannah when it reaches 95° & 96°. The heat of Savannah is tempered by an almost constant sea breeze: at the north there is a stagnation of atmosphere that is extremely unpleasant and trying.” Any veteran of upstate New York can surely sympathize with, and perhaps giggle at, Mercer’s confusion and dismay.
But Mercer, undaunted, continued his vacation. On his third day, he enjoyed a “fine breakfast” of venison, then “rowed on the lake.” “The day was oppressively warm,” he grumbled. That afternoon he took a stage to Moreau, passing Glens Falls. From Moreau, he returned to Saratoga “in time for supper after a most delightful trip.” To his surprise, he, like so many today, found the town overrun with tourists. So much so, that his hotel had let his room go in his absence. “The Union was so crowded I was forced to be content with a room outside.”
The next day saw his departure. Despite the heat and crowds, Mercer had enjoyed himself. “I bade farewell to Saratoga with deep regret, but felt strong and well, and many considerations urged me home.”
It is worth noting that, like so many other visitors to Saratoga, George Mercer went on to celebrate secession and aid in the rebellion against the United States. He rose to the rank of Fourth Lieutenant in a Georgia regiment and became a rabid Confederate nationalist and inveterate foe of abolitionists.
In fact, as he grew more fanatical, Saratoga Springs became emblematic of all the things he hated about the United States. Second only to abolitionism was resort-living: “How many a young man have I known ruined by the corruption and luxury of New York,” he fumed in his journal.
“How many a young woman spoiled by the fashion and frivolity of Newport and Saratoga! I trust we are done with them forever, and will learn to seek our pleasure in the quiet and virtuous home paths that branch out from the domestic circle,” he wrote.
So maybe George’s Yelp review would not be so kind after all. He enjoyed the parties and lakes, but was repulsed by the weather, ladies, decadence, and crowds. Looking towards Track Season 2022, I wonder if much has changed.
[The diary of George Mercer is located at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, GA.]
Dr. Michael Todd Landis is a Trustee of the Saratoga County History Center (Ballston Spa, NY), editor of The Saratoga County Compass, and the author of Northern Men with Southern Principles: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell University Press, 2014).
Photos: Saratoga Springs hotel life in 1874 (photo by Record and Epler, from the George Bolster Collection, Saratoga Springs History Museum); and the original Minne-Ha-Ha at Lake George Village in ca. 1860.