In 1846 an obscure French schoolteacher, Peter Stewart Ney, died in Rowan County, North Carolina. He served in the various small home schoolrooms scattered among the Presbyterian gentry in Rowan (and to a lesser extent Iredell, Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties) in the North Carolina Piedmont. He was known to have served in Napoleon’s armies. His neighbors—some of them presumably former students—buried him in the churchyard at Third Creek Presbyterian Church outside modern-day Cleveland, North Carolina when he died at seventy-seven years old. His tombstone—hewed from the white marble the region is famous for—read:
IN MEMORY OF PETER STEWART NEY
A NATIVE OF FRANCE
SOLDIER OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
UNDER NAPOLEON BONAPARTE
WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE
NOVEMBER 15TH, 1846
AGED 77 YEARS
Ney’s life, and especially his life before he came to the United States, remained a mystery to the mostly Scots-Irish farmers who populated western Rowan County. They knew he emigrated from France in the aftermath of Napoleon’s fall and exile and they knew he initially arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. He integrated into the Presbyterian community enough to gain some level of trust by the local ecclesiastical hierarchy. When Concord Presbytery chartered Davidson College in 1837, Ney designed the school’s (still extant) seal.
The presence of an educated and relatively cosmopolitan schoolteacher in agrarian Early Republic North Carolina was enough of a rarity that Ney’s neighbors tolerated his cultural idiosyncrasies. After all, he was French. He regaled the local youths with intricately detailed stories of Napoleon’s battles. He also—strange it seemed for a common soldier—had remarkably in depth recall of orders given by the French Empire’s high command. Ney, it seemed, knew the thoughts of Napoleon’s marshals and even the deposed emperor himself. Strange as that might be, his neighbors could attribute that to Ney’s raw intelligence; he spoke several languages and had an exellent command of Classics needed to educate the children of local aristocrats who employed him. But his military and political knowledge was never the strangest thing about Ney. When he occasionally drank a bit with the local grandees, he would claim that he wasn’t merely a schoolteacher. Ney, it seemed, told a few people he was none other than Marshal Michel Ney, 1st Duke of Elchingen, 1st Prince of the Moskva, popularly known in France and Europe as the “the bravest of the brave” of Napoleon’s generals, thought to have been executed by the restored government of Louis XVIII.
The rumored identity of Ney trickled out. By the 1880s it had become a local legend. The idea that a hidden Napoleonic marshal lived, labored, and worshipped among Rowan County’s Presbyterians was too interesting to dismiss outright. In 1895, the respected rector of the Episcopal church in Hickory, North Carolina, James Weston, gathered the evidence into a book and to his surprise Weston began to think the strange legend might actually be true. When Napoleon died in 1821, Peter Stewart Ney apparently tried to kill himself. He claimed to be Marshal Ney on his deathbed. Ney had Huguenot ancestors. The Duke of Wellington’s open hatred for Louis XVIII and respect for Ney figures prominently in Weston’s surprisingly sophisticated theory for how Ney survived a feigned execution.
This week a team from France exhumed the body of Peter Stewart Ney to try and conclusively answer the question of who he actually was. I visited the grave a few days earlier; its just under a mile from my childhood home. No matter who Ney is, he was remarkable. His life among Presbyterians in North Carolina was defined and sustained by the equally remarkable local congregations’ commitment to education and a surprisingly cosmopolitan understanding of the world around them.