Sitting out of place among the modest headstones of Third Creek Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, NC is a grave that has been enclosed by a brick structure. No one is quite sure who the man buried beneath truly is. However, locals believed he was a famous French soldier.
Michel Ney was Napoleon’s “Marshal of the Empire”, and after Napoleon’s defeat, and according to the accepted history, was executed by firing squad in December of 1815. The alternate account of those events however, is that Ney didn’t die on that day in December, but was aided by his Freemason connections and possibly even the Duke of Wellington in faking his own death and escaping France.
What is certain is that a man calling himself Peter Stewart Ney arrives in Cheraw, South Carolina sometime around 1819 where he eventually takes a post as a schoolmaster.
The rumors of his hidden identity start very quickly, and whether or not they were true, the teacher indulges some listeners with stories of France that seem to be veiled proofs of his true name, Michel Ney of France, the Marshal.
Besides the stories, one event seems to solidify his identity in the minds of his neighbors. Upon learning of the death of his beloved Emperor, Ney was witnessed fainting in front of his pupils. Later that night, he also tried unsuccessfully to take his own life.
A short time after that, Ney disappears from South Carolina. There are no exhaustive records of where he travels afterwards, but there are firsthand accounts from various states and cities of a man named Ney during those years. What is sure is that he is next found in the little town of Mocksville, NC which is between Statesville and Lexington. As in Cheraw, a teacher is needed in the little community, and Ney easily finds employment as a schoolmaster.
Quickly he became the most important man in the com-
munity. He wrote a beautiful hand, composed poetry for the
newspapers and young ladies’ albums, and was regarded as a man
of mystery and a romantic figure. His school was crowded with
pupils, for he was by popular reputation a teacher of much learning, and he maintained perfect discipline. -LeGette Blythe, “Marshal Ney: A Dual Life”
Ney seemed to relish his standing in the community. He was a respected, educated man, who sometimes found himself drilling the Rowan county militia, and afterwards drinking with them. Occasionally during these drinking sessions the local men would attempt to get Ney to admit to being the Marshal, which he would deny. At the same time however, he would regale them with tales of European battlefields and past glories.
Ney died in 1846, his last words were purported to be “I will not die with a lie on my lips. I am Marshal Ney of France“.
He was interred in the modest burying ground of the local Presbyterian church in what is now Cleveland, NC. What he left behind was a long legacy of both denying and confirming his identity as Marshal Ney of France. During his time in NC he had been published in newspapers, designed the seal for Davidson College, educated a score of children, and cemented himself as a tangible local legend.
In the years that have followed, many people on both sides of the Marshal Ney debate have made their cases. Books have been written for and against, experts have taken sides. The consensus these days is that the man Ney was very likely not Michel Ney, the Marshal.
Whoever he was, he became an integral and important part of the local community, and left behind a romantic legend for future generations to scrutinize as they see fit.
If you’d like the visit Ney’s final resting place and pay your respects to the Marshal, the graveyard is open to the public.
UPDATE: As of July 5th, 2022, a French crew is exhuming the grave of the man called Peter Stuart Ney in hopes of completing DNA testing on the remains. To see pictures of the exhumation and more details about the project, click here.
Davidson College’s collection of materials related to Ney. These include accounts from locals and some of Ney’s own papers.
LeGette Blythe’s book “Marshal Ney: A Dual Life” Blythe believed Ney was the Marshal, and employed handwriting experts in an attempt to confirm his theory.