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The mystery of Marshal Ney, “the bravest of the brave” (Napoleon)

Posted in Historical articles, History, Mystery, War on Monday, 23 April 2012

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This edited article about Marshal Ney originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 693 published on 26 April 1975.

Marshal Ney's execution, picture, image, illustration

Marshal Ney prepares to face the firing squad by Ken Petts

On the morning of December 7th, 1815, a carriage came to a halt in the Luxembourg Gardens, and from it stepped Michel Ney, a Marshal of France, whose flamboyant courage during the retreat from Moscow had caused the Emperor Napoleon to refer to him as ‘the bravest of the brave.’ But all that was in the past. Today, the veteran soldiers who had been waiting for the Marshal since 5 a.m., were not there to pay him honour, but to execute him as a traitor for his part in trying to restore Napoleon to power after his escape from Elba.

Calmly, Ney took his place against the wall. An officer advanced towards him with a bandage, only to be waved back. “Are you ignorant of the fact,” Ney said reprovingly, “that for twenty years I have been accustomed to face both cannon balls and bullets?” The officer then stepped back, and Ney addressed the picket. “My brave comrades. When I place my hand on my breast, fire.” Removing his hat and striking his heart, he cried “Soldiers, straight to the heart – fire!” A volley crashed out and Ney fell to the ground.

A tragic and shameful end for a man who had once been the idol of France? Not so, according to two diligent American amateur historians who have put forward the theory that Marshal Ney did not die on that cold December morning.

To learn how this claim came into being, we have to look into the history of a Frenchman named Peter Stuart Ney. This man had arrived in America in the year of the Marshal’s death, and had lived there for twenty-five years, working as a school teacher. On his death bed, he made a startling statement to a friend. “I am Marshal Ney of France,” he declared.

The story that Peter Ney went on to tell, was a bizarre one. First he claimed that his escape had been engineered by the Duke of Wellington, with the help of the French military. When the order had been given to fire, the soldiers had simply placed their bullets in the wall above his head. The necessary blood had been supplied by a sac of red liquid concealed under Ney’s shirt, which he had broken when he had ordered the soldiers to fire at his heart. After he had been pronounced dead by the doctor who was also in the plot, his body had been taken away in a carriage to a nearby hospital. From there he had sailed to Charleston, in America.

At first, the story seems to be one that can easily be dismissed. In the first place, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim that the Duke of Wellington helped to save Ney’s life. Moreover, when Peter Ney’s body was examined, the scars it bore did not correspond with those known to have been inflicted on the Marshal during his various battles.

But since Peter Ney’s death, a number of strange facts have emerged. In 1819, he had been seen by three French refugees who claimed that he was the Marshal. There is also an account given to an American journalist by a veteran French soldier, who had served under the Marshal, and had later deserted and had shipped aboard a vessel sailing to America from Bordeaux. During the journey, he had seen a passenger whom he had at once recognised as Marshal Ney. Eagerly, he had gone forward to pay his respects, only to be rebuffed with the words: “Marshal Ney was executed two weeks ago in Paris.” Strangely, Peter Ney had mentioned in his dying statement that he had been recognised by one of his old soldiers while travelling to America.

What other evidence is there to support his claim? His knowledge of the Napoleonic Campaigns was so extensive as to make his listeners believe that he had taken part in them. Slightly more puzzling was his intimate knowledge of certain events which could only have been known to someone who had been very close to the Marshal.

Much also has been made of Peter Ney’s reaction to Napoleon’s death at St. Helena. When the news was brought to him at the school where he was teaching, he promptly fainted. When he revived, he went straight to his room, burnt a large number of documents, and then made an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide. There is also the story in existence of Peter Ney being visited by a mysterious well-dressed young man with a foreign accent – a visit which happened to coincide with the arrival of one of Marshal Ney’s sons in America. Was this a case of a son secretly meeting his father, as has been suggested?

None of this so-called evidence makes a conclusive case for Peter Ney’s claim, and it would therefore be easy to dismiss it all as pure supposition, supported by the delusions of an old soldier who had probably served under Marshal Ney.

Except for one fact.

A century after Peter Ney’s death, a New York handwriting expert was shown specimens of the writing of both men. He declared: “I am of the opinion that the writer of the pages purporting to be those of Marshal Ney and the writer of the specimens purporting to be those of P. S. Ney, are one and the same person.”

Could this handwriting expert, whose services had been used in many famous courtroom battles, really have been wrong?

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