They were paving the parking lot of the church when I arrived at the Third Creek Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, North Carolina. With the lot unavailable, I pulled into the grass along the road and got out. I felt bad for the men laboring on the asphalt – it was barely eight and it was already hot and humid. They were in for a long day.
From the road, I could see the grave I sought. They paused from their work to watch as I crossed the grassy lawn, carefully weaving my way through the field of stone to a large brick structure protecting the grave of one of North Carolina’s most interesting folk figures. Looking through the glass I could see the old tombstone protected from the weather and vandals. On the side of the structure is a plaque that reads “In memory of Peter Stuart Ney, a native of France and soldier of the French Revolution under Napoleon Bonaparte, who departed this life November 15, 1846, aged 77 years.” The life of the man buried here has become a part of regional lore and his legend has held the public’s attention to the present day.
This legend states that Ney appeared in the Carolinas some time during the mid-1810s to early 1820s and seemed to be a man without a past. He traveled a circuit teaching French and Latin before finally settling in the Cleveland area of North Carolina. Little about his past is actually known because Ney kept mostly to himself.
But word of mouth created a history for Ney. Neighbors saw him reading French newspapers and realized he was especially interested in articles about the French Empire. Supposedly he let slip to some of his neighbors he had served in the French army. Once he beat a French fencing instructor who was living in the region. When Ney heard of Napoleon’s death he supposedly fainted, filled with grief over the news. For a time after he was so distraught that he had attempted to kill himself. The schoolmaster’s fighting ability and his fascination with French culture had people in the region wondering about the identity of this man. Many began to claim he resembled Marshall Michel Ney of France and rumors stated that Michel Ney escaped his 1815 execution and had fled to America.
Michel Ney was born in 1769 and in 1787 enlisted in the French Army. He rose quickly through the ranks, fighting for the Republic during the French Revolution. He would eventually show his loyalty to Napoleon Bonaparte who would give Ney the title of Marshall of the Republic in 1804. Ney was involved in the 1812 invasion of Russia and would be known as “the last Frenchman on Russian soil,” due to his command of the rear guard during the French retreat.
By 1814, Ney had pledged his loyalty to the monarchy, turning against Napoleon. He pressured Napoleon to accept exile and was promoted for his actions. Despite his pledge of loyalty to the king, Ney and his forces rejoined Napoleon’s forces in March 1815 to fight against the monarchy. This decision would seal Ney’s fate. Once Napoleon was defeated, Ney was arrested for treason, and in early December 1815 was executed by a firing squad.
The conspiracy that Ney somehow survived and came to America to serve as a schoolteacher has remained a part of American lore. Did he somehow manage to escape execution? Those who believe so maintain the execution was faked and escaped thanks to a plot by the Freemasons, which Ney was a member. Those who think the two are the same man attempt to use the name Peter Stuart Ney as evidence – Michel Ney’s father was Pierre, or Peter, and his mother’s maiden name was Stuart.
Many of those believing Peter and Michel Ney were the same person often turn to the legend of Peter’s last words. According to legend, Peter, who died in 1846, was asked on his deathbed by one of his neighbors if he was the Marshall Ney. Supposedly Peter replied, “I will not die with a lie on my lips! I am Marshall Ney of France!” Peter died at the age of 77, the same age that Michel Ney would have been had he not been executed. According to some versions of the legend, soon after his death, Ney’s chest of personal belongings disappeared, taking away any possibility to identify him.
The legend of Peter Ney also states that other Frenchmen passing through the region had recognized him as being Marshall Michel Ney. I have not been able to locate any direct source on this portion of the legend. Even the earliest stories about Peter Ney make this claim, but it seems to be more of a “word of mouth” story than something that actually happened – it may have been created by those attempting to give the mysterious Peter Ney a background that strongly connected him to France.
While the legend holds the attention of the public, there are some pieces of evidence that prove they are not the same man. Handwriting samples from Peter and Michel do not match. Peter’s body has been exhumed twice with no conclusive proof coming from the examinations. Note: I personally do not believe the two Neys were the same person. However, I have not been able to find any place that Michel’s body has been exhumed to prove that he is indeed buried in the cemetery in Paris. The moving of Michel Ney’s remains to their current resting place seems to have created debate because the person moving it claimed he thought the coffin was empty, but I’m not sure if anybody actually looked.
So if Peter and Michel were not the same person, then who was Peter? The world was caught up with what was going on in France at the time and Peter – if that was even his name – was caught up in the desire of “all things French.” He had the ability and talent to absorb the French language and used this as a basis to continue the charade. The theory I personally lean towards is this all started as a joke on his students – one student claimed he told them of his identity during class – and that joke took a life of its own.
Whatever the story may be regarding the identity of Peter Ney, only one thing is positively known – he rests in the Third Creek Presbyterian Cemetery in Cleveland, North Carolina.