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.
Without infantry or artillery support, Ney was unable to break the Anglo-Allied formation. It has been argued that Ney’s action led to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, one of the most crucial battles in modern history.
With Napoleon defeated and exiled for the second time, Ney was arrested on Aug. 3, 1815, and tried four months later for treason. On Dec. 6, 1815, he was condemned, and executed by firing squad in Paris the following day, an event said to have caused deep division among the French public.
Ney refused to wear a blindfold and was allowed the right to give the order to fire. Ney is said to have been buried in Paris at Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Yet there are those who believe Ney escaped the firing squad in 1815 and emigrated to the United States, landing in Charleston, SC, before moving on to Rowan County, NC, where he would serve as a schoolmaster until his death in 1846 at age 77.
Today, nearly 200 years after Ney was supposed to have been lined up in Paris near the Luxembourg Garden and executed it’s not entirely clear to some if the marshal was executed as ordered, or an elaborate hoax was perpetuated.
Following his death, stories quickly spread about a plot hatched by those allied to the exiled emperor that would save Ney.
“According to the rumors, the firing squad actually shot blanks and the marshal himself fooled the onlookers bursting blood packs concealed in his shirt,” according to the blog Military History Now. “No customary final headshot was delivered to the body of Ney after the musket volley either, further fueling the conspiracy theory. A body double was supposedly switched and placed in the casket while Ney was actually spirited out of the country by agents loyal to Bonaparte.”
The following year, one Peter Stewart Ney arrived in Charleston, some say through Masonic connections. Not only did the redheaded immigrant match the marshal’s physical description, but Marshall Ney’s father’s name was Pierre, which is Peter in English, and his mother’s maiden name was Stewart.
Over the next few years, the middle-aged Peter Ney moved about the southern US, never staying in the same town for too long, possibly moving on when suspicions of his true identity heated up, according to Military History Now.
Finally, Ney settled in Rowan County, northeast of Charlotte, where he became a well-liked and indefatigable teacher.
Ney would parade and inspect his pupils each morning, applying a decidedly military bent to his teaching style, former students recalled.
“He constantly pushed them to apply their lessons and excel and had a tendency to challenge his spirited and disruptive pupils to playful duels with wooden sticks,” they remembered. “He even wrote a math textbook and once carved a replica of a globe into a pumpkin in an effort to teach his students world geography.”
The most noted student Peter Stewart Ney taught was James B. Gordon, who rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate Army and served under famed cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart.
Some in Rowan County suspected the ginger-haired teacher might just be the famed veteran of the Grande Armée. Ney himself was grief-stricken when he learned of Napoleon’s death in 1821, reportedly thrusting a knife into his own neck in a fit of grief and almost killing himself.
In his final hours, Ney reportedly told those at his bedside that he was in fact the famous marshal.
His final words as he neared death on Nov. 15, 1846, were purportedly “I am Ney of France!”
His gravestone, which still stands today at Third Creek Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, NC, reads, “A native of France and soldier of the French Revolution under Napoleon Bonaparte.”
In the decades following his death, historians tried to settle the mystery. Samples of the two Neys’ handwriting failed to show similarities and on the two occasions that his body was exhumed, in 1887 and again in 1936, no conclusive proof emerged.
While at least three books written by North Carolinians argued that Peter Stewart Ney was Marshal Ney, evidence gathered during the 1940s and 1950s by William Henry Hoyt of Greenwich, Conn., established that the conditions under which Marshal Ney was executed at Paris in 1815, and the verification prepared at that time, made it impossible for the execution to have been simulated or another person substituted for the marshal.
But that left the question of who was Peter Stewart Ney?
According to testimony discovered by Hoyt and others, Peter Stewart Ney said occasionally that he had been born in 1787 in Stirlingshire, Scotland, not far from the ruined castle of the Scottish hero, Sir James Graham, and that his mother’s maiden name was Isabella Stewart, according to NCpedia.
“Following these clues, Hoyt discovered that on 3 February 1788, one John McNee and his wife, Isbal Stewart, baptized an infant named Peter at Fintry Parish, Stirlingshire, about three and a half miles from the Graham castle ruins,” according to the online reference.
“This seems confirmatory. But Hoyt was frustrated in his efforts to trace the subsequent life of Peter McNee so as to connect it with that of the Peter Stewart Ney who in March 1820 declared his intention to become a US citizen, was employed in 1827 by Archibald DeBow Murphey, and later became a schoolmaster. In short, the early life of Peter Stewart Ney remains almost entirely unknown. He was not, however, the marshal,” it added.
As tantalizing as it would be to believe that one of Napoleon’s greatest marshals whiled away his final years tutoring North Carolina schoolboys on the finer points of geography and mathematics, it’s almost certain that Paul Stewart Ney was no more one of France’s great French military minds than Anna Anderson was the daughter of Nicholas II or Karl Wilhelm Naundorff the Dauphin of France.
(Top” Marshal Ney, front center, with red hair, leading cavalry charge at the Battle of Waterloo.)