“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.
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.