The myth of Marshal Michele Ney, Napoleon’s trusted lieutenant, has long fascinated North Carolina storytellers. Thanks to our partner, Mitchell Community College, we now have a video version of the story, told by Bill Moose, a Mitchell CC alumnus and former instructor.
The romantic myth, first told by one of Peter Stewart Ney’s former students, says that Michel Ney escaped his own execution and fled to the United States, living out the rest of his days as the school teacher Peter Stewart Ney in North Carolina. The legend pulls in the life of the real Peter Stewart Ney, a teacher who happened to share the Marshal’s last name and who was an immigrant to South Carolina near the time of Michel Ney’s execution (though records suggest he was from Scotland rather than France). Peter Stewart Ney’s grave in Rowan county reads, “a native of France… and soldier of the French Revolution… under… Napoleon Bonaparte,” and his birth year is listed as 1769, the year Michel Ney was born. Though many storytellers have attempted to explain the ways that Michele Ney could have escaped and the similarities between the two men, historians have established that Peter Stewart Ney was not the Marshal.
Moose’s version tells how Michele Ney faked his own execution and was able to escape France by ship. Once in America, Moose theorizes that Ney could have connected with friends in Philadelphia. According to Moose, Michele Ney’s son, Eugène Michel Ney, was trained as a doctor in Philadelphia, and Peter Stewart Ney may have visited him. Moose also focuses on the oft-repeated story that Peter Stewart Ney allegedly attempted suicide when he heard of Napoleon’s death, though the source of that story is unclear.
The Ney myth runs so deeply in NC history that Peter Stewart Ney’s body was exhumed in 1887 and examined for evidence that he was the Marshal. In Moose’s telling, the lack of evidence found on the body (which was mostly decomposed) allowed the myth to continue.
Though he was not Napoleon’s lieutenant, Peter Stewart Ney did receive some acclaim as a teacher and scholar, according to Moose’s version. He developed a shorthand writing style and designed the seal and motto of Davidson College, Alenda Lux Ubi Orta Libertas. Sadly, not much is known about the early life of Peter Stewart Ney.
You can see the full batch of videos from Mitchell Community College, including the Mystery of Marshal Ney, here. You can also browse all videos from Mitchell CC and our other partners in our North Carolina Sights and Sounds collection. To see more from Mitchell Community College, you can visit their partner page and their website.