Did Napoleon’s Favourite Marshal End His Days As An American High School Teacher?

Ney's finest hour. In 1812, the French marshal picked up a musket and joined the line to fight off advancing Russians. Did this beloved war hero escape later a firing squad and flee France to become a North Carolina high school teacher? (Image source: WikiCommons)

Ney’s finest hour. In 1812, the French marshal picked up a musket and joined the line to fight off advancing Russians. After Waterloo, did this beloved war hero vanish only to become a North Carolina high school teacher? (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Was this hero of Napoleonic France really shot by a firing squad on Dec. 7, 1815?”

“I AM NEY OF FRANCE!” Those were reportedly the last words of an obscure 77-year-old North Carolina schoolmaster whose death in 1846 touched off a mystery that has consumed historians for more than a century and a half.

Marshal Ney.

Marshal Ney.

Was the deceased Peter Stuart Ney more than just a mild-mannered head master who had taught in and around Rowan County, North Carolina for more than 20 years? Was he also Michel Ney, “bravest of the brave”, field marshal to Napoleon, the Duke of Elchingen, and a veteran of countless battles? It’s still a mystery.

The life story of France’s Marshal Ney reads like something out of a Bernard Cornwell novel. The son of a barrel maker who rose from the ranks as a trooper in the French hussars to eventually lead Napoleon’s Grande Armée, Ney was a bona fide war hero — wounded in battle, captured, released, decorated and later promoted to general. Nicknamed Ginger for his flowing red hair, he was famous for riding to Napoleon’s rescue at the 1807 Battle of Eylau and for taking on the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula War. Although eventually earning the title of duke, Ney won the undying respect of even the lowliest foot soldiers when he personally shouldered a musket and fought in the rear guard during the disastrous winter retreat from Moscow in 1812. In fact, Ney gained the reputation for being the last Frenchman to leave Russian soil. Captured after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the marshal was eventually tried by the new French regime for treason, found guilty and condemned to death.

But was this hero of Napoleonic France really shot by a firing squad on Dec. 7, 1815? Or was the execution faked as some have suggested? Official history reports that Ney was buried in Paris at Père Lachaise Cemetery. But following his death, stories spread like wildfire about a plot hatched by those allied to the exiled emperor to save Ney. According to the rumours, the firing squad actually shot blanks and the marshal (aware of the scheme) fooled onlookers by bursting blood packs concealed in his shirt. Supposedly, no customary final head-shot was delivered after the musket volley, further fueling conspiracy theorists. A body double was placed in the casket, many maintained, while Ney was actually spirited out of France by agents loyal to Bonaparte.

The following year, history records the sudden appearance of one Peter Stuart Ney in Charleston, South Carolina. The redheaded immigrant matched the marshal’s physical description. For the next few years, the middle-aged Ney moved about the southern U.S., never staying in the same town for too long, perhaps moving on when suspicions of his true identity heated up.

Eventually, Ney settled in Rowan County, North Carolina, where he became a well-liked and (by most accounts) tireless schoolteacher. According to his former students, Ney would parade and inspect them each morning, much like a field marshal might. He constantly pushed them to better themselves and had a tendency to challenge spirited and disruptive pupils to playful duels with wooden sticks. He even wrote a math textbook and once carved a replica of the globe into a pumpkin in an effort to teach his students world geography. There were those who suspected that this mild-mannered teacher might just be the famed veteran of the wars in Europe. They pointed to the fact that Marshal Ney’s father had been named Peter and his mother’s maiden name was Stuart — a strange coincidence? And upon learning of the death of the former emperor in 1821, Ney reportedly drove a knife into his own neck in a fit of grief almost killing himself. Some have guessed that the people of Rowan County actually knew full well the true identity of the hero in their midst and went to great lengths to cover for him. In his final hours, Ney reportedly told those at his bedside that he was in fact the famous marshal. His gravestone, which still stands today in Cleveland, North Carolina, reads  “A native of France and soldier of the French Revolution under Napoleon Bonaparte.”

In the decades following his death, historians have tried to settle the mystery once and for all. Disappointingly, samples of the two Neys’ handwriting have failed to show similarities and the two occasions that his body was exhumed, in 1887 and again in 1936, no conclusive proof emerged. To this day, the true identity of Peter Stuart Ney remains one of the greatest mysteries of North Carolina.

26 comments for “Did Napoleon’s Favourite Marshal End His Days As An American High School Teacher?

  1. 31 May, 2012 at 8:21 am
  2. 2 June, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Fascinating! I had always thought the firing squad was his fate.

  3. 29 November, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    I don’t know the veracity of this article (who does?), but I would love to believe that Marechal Ney cheated the firing squad and settled in the USA as a schoolteacher, as the article says, “… like something out of a Bernard Cornwell novel”

    • 29 November, 2012 at 1:55 pm

      Well, the story itself has been reported widely, but is it speculation, conjecture, etc.? Who knows.

  4. 31 January, 2015 at 10:45 am

    My father, not knowing this story, allways dreamd of a big heritage from America.

    • david hall
      4 April, 2016 at 6:53 pm

      Thomas: don’t know if you receive this.. but hope so.. please see my reply to Bob Kittl,, Be glad to chat w/ you anytime.. What is your connection to the Marshal?

      • Thomas Ney
        16 April, 2016 at 4:14 pm

        My english is not so good, so excuse all mistakes, please.
        My connection to Marshal Ney? I don’t know, I have no information about my family and where they come from. It’s only the name and the dream of my father.

      • ?
        22 April, 2016 at 8:38 am

        David

    • Eddie Bennett
      15 April, 2016 at 7:04 pm

      Thomas maybe sometime we could talk my grandmother is Dorothy ney his great great granddaughter thanks …Eddie

      • david hall
        16 April, 2016 at 5:39 pm

        Eddie, where does your grandmother live? US of France? I will be in France mid June if she there.. David

      • 1 November, 2016 at 10:50 pm

        I’m currently working on a novel about the good Marshal and came across a Dorothy Ney. Ed Bennett

  5. William E Myers
    23 July, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    I had him for a teacher, or so my grandchildren think ! I assure them that I am NOT that old, but they think I am ancient. I do live near Third Creek Church were Marshal Ney is buried.

  6. david hall
    2 October, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    Interesting legend in the Cleveland community. In fact: I own the home, built in early 1840’s, that Ney reportedly died in.. Nov 1846. Long live the Marshal!

    • 2 October, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      Gotta send a picture of that.

    • Bill Ottinger
      28 October, 2016 at 11:02 pm

      Two old books devoted to the subject: “Marshal Ney: A Dual Life” by L Gette Blythe (1937), and “Marshal Ney: Before and After Execution” by J. Edward Smoot (1929). Both present strong cases for his survival and life in North Carolina, including handwriting evidence. They may be available on ABE Books or one of the other used book sites.

  7. Ron Norman
    11 January, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    I read a book about Peter Stuart Ney about 20 years ago and have actually visited his grave site at the 3rd Creek Presbyterian Church Cemetery near Cleveland, NC. I am convinced that he was Marshal Ney. There are just too many coincidences- 1. His death bed confession. 2. He kept moving farther inland because someone would recognize him and ask if he was Ney. 3. When a book about the Napoleonic Wars was published in the 1820’s or 30’s, he wrote in the margin everything that was incorrect in the book. Davidson College still has that book. 4. When he was executed his body fell forward. Getting hit by 8 to 10– .69″ musket balls simultaneously would have caused him to lurch backward, not forward. 5. His wife was not allowed to view his body. 6. His sons made several unexplained visits to the US during the 1830’s & 40’s. 7. His troops called him ‘Red Peter’ because of his hair. 8. His mother’s maiden name was Stuart, not the more common Stewart spelling. 9. The birth year on his tombstone is correct for Marshal Ney. 10. His grave is enclosed by a brick structure with two glass windows and a shingle roof. Reputedly to prevent wear and tear on it, because so many people were visiting and touching his tombstone

    • 19 June, 2016 at 12:00 am

      It was around 1950 when a popular American magazine — perhaps Colliers or Saturday Evening Post — ran the Ney story, including the “fake?” firing squad.
      A branch of the Ney family lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. I once asked Dr. Philip Ney, a physiaytrost still living in Victoria, if he was related to Marshal Ney. He replied that there is a distant connection.

  8. BOB KITTL
    4 April, 2016 at 9:54 am

    I talked to a gentleman who lives in the house where eventually passed away but never heard anymore from him, not sure if i could ask him what this property is like nowadays and does it retain some of its original appearance?

    • david hall
      4 April, 2016 at 6:48 pm

      Bob, be glad to converse more w/ you.. anytime.. Maybe I can get my IT wife to post a picture here of our home.. AND a pic of the upstairs bedroom Ney reportedly died in. Any time. David

      • Carter
        22 April, 2016 at 8:35 am

        Hi I would like to know a lot more about marshal Ney im his great great great great grandson carter ney thank you

        • david hall
          22 April, 2016 at 7:00 pm

          Hello Carter. Great to hear from a descendent of the Marshall.
          Best place for you to start is just Google Marshall Ney, and Peter Stuart Ney.. Do that then contact me. Be glad to chat w/ you. Maybe you’ve seen in earlier posts, but we believe he died in my home in NC.

  9. Micah
    3 June, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    My grandfather and father wrote about his possible Indiana connection in 1987 in the Outdoor Indiana Magazine and visited Peter Ney’s grave in NC. Here is the included link for the article (pgs. 25-29 of the online pages). I know from traveling many times to the cave mentioned and camping there it is a truly special place and this was at the ripe age of 6. It has stuck with me. The cross I hope still survives that is inside the cave. I’ve since moved to Charleston, SC where Ney may have entered the US and have tried looking for records to no success. Hope this helps or is at least interesting for those who want to know more about Mr. Ney : http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/metsnav3/general/index.html#mets=http%3A%2F%2Fpurl.dlib.indiana.edu%2Fiudl%2Fgeneral%2Fmets%2FVAA3736-1987-04&page=25

  10. David K
    20 September, 2016 at 4:56 am

    Although I love the idea of Marshal Ney surviving and living his last days in America, I believe there is ample evidence to discount this. First, the Marshal had ample opportunity to depart France before his capture, and he had received encouragement to do so (I am referencing Andrew Hilliard Atteridge’s work, “The Bravest of the Brave”). Second, during his trial, his attorneys had devised a brilliant defense that Ney was in fact NOT a Frenchman by birth (true) and as such the French court could not condemn him. Ney, however, rebuked this defense, stating in no uncertainty that he was French, so great was his love for the country he served. Third, by all accounts Ney was desperately in love with his wife and children, who held no special position after Ney’s downfall… and Madame Ney loved him just as greatly. Nothing would have prevented them from departing France if they had believed Ney alive, and nothing would have prevented Ney from sending for them once he established himself in America. Record-keeping in the early 1800’s was very poor by modern standards, and the entire Ney family could have vanished into obscurity. Fourth, I’ve seen many records of the Marshal’s parentage, and his mother’s birth name is listed as Grewelinger, NOT Stuart. More likely, there were many Frenchmen departing Europe after Waterloo, and many who still idolized Ney in memory of the retreat from Moscow. Someone needing a new identity could easily have honored the Marshal by taking on his last name. No one likes to think of heroes being mortal, and I believe this is a mystery similar to the legend of Elvis Presley

    • George
      5 January, 2017 at 11:48 am

      David K, I have to admit that a lot of what you said does make sense and please do not think that I am trying to dispute what you said in your post. The notions that you put forth in your post do offer compelling reasons to believe that Marshal Ney and Peter Stuart Ney were not the same man. However, consider this, if Marshal Michel Ney was living in the U.S. under the alias of Peter Stuart Ney then there was a reason for that. That reason was that he WANTED the world to believe that he perished in front of that firing squad in France in 1815. Ney perhaps felt that this might be the best way to not only protect his own life but the lives of wife and children as well. Ney might very well have felt that if he went into exile as Marshal Michel Ney that possibly agents of the new French regime or the British or the Prussians might sooner or later have tried to assassinate him and his family. That would be the only reason that I can think of that would possibly make him want to live in another country under an assumed name. True, he may have initially balked at the idea of leaving France but that’s not to say that the man may have changed his mind after considering all of alternatives. Even the rebuking of his defense at the trial may have been part of his plan to make everyone believe that he died a martyr. As far as the part about why his family never came to America to be with him it might be that Ney never felt comfortable having them here or it could be as simple as the fact that they just didn’t want to move to the U.S. Either way, If Peter Stuart Ney was really Marshal Michel Ney in hiding then there was a reason he was in hiding to begin with. As I said, I’m not trying to dispute what you said, I am merely offering other alternatives as to why the Marshal Ney/Peter Stuart Ney story may be true. I really don’t believe any of us will ever know the truth, either way. The only way that I can see to ever find out would be thru DNA testing and I don’t know if there would be enough of his physical remains left to do an accurate test.

    • Paul
      6 August, 2017 at 2:16 am

      How was Ney not a Frenchman by birth? He was born in Saarlouis, which was a French town at that time – it was only was given to Prussia in 1815.

  11. Klemen Grdina
    7 March, 2017 at 7:25 am

    In remember reading they allowed him to pick his firing squad, which was made up from his former soldiers and he himself commanded the execution. If that is true it would explain how he could have faked his death.

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