As improbable as it seems, in some circles there is still doubt as to whether Michel Ney, one of France’s greatest military minds, was executed for treason in 1815 or instead ended his days as a North Carolina schoolmaster three decades later.
Ney was among the ablest of Napoleon’s military leaders, commanding troops during both the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. He was wounded at least four times during his career, fought in scores of battles and commanded the rearguard of Napoleon’s Grande Armée as it withdrew from Russia during the ill-fated invasion of that country. Ney was said to have been the last Frenchman on Russian soil during the Patriotic War of 1812.
Napoleon himself called Ney “the bravest of the brave.”
It was Ney, however, who in April 1814 led the Marshals’ revolt and demanded Napoleon’s abdication.
Initially, Ney was lauded by the Bourbons when they reclaimed the French crown, but the newly restored monarchy was said to have reacted coolly to Ney’s non-aristocratic beginnings.
When Ney heard of Napoleon’s escape from Elba in early 1815, he organized a force to stop his former leader’s march on Paris in a bid to keep France at peace and show his loyalty to the newly restored regime. But despite Ney’s promise to King Louis XVIII, he found himself unable to resist Napoleon’s siren song and rejoined his former commander on March 18, 1815.
Three months later, Napoleon appointed Ney commander of the left wing of the Army of the North. On June 16, 1815, Napoleon’s forces split up to fight two separate battles simultaneously.
Ney attacked the Duke of Wellington at Quatre Bras while Napoleon attacked Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher’s Prussians at Ligny. The French won the initial battle, but weren’t able to deliver a knockout blow.
At Waterloo two days later Ney again commanded the left wing of the French army. At mid-afternoon, Ney ordered a mass cavalry charge against the Anglo-Allied line. Ney’s cavalry overran the enemy cannon, but found the enemy infantry arrayed in cavalry-proof square formations.