Researchers exhuming remains of Rowan Co. teacher to determine if he was a French military leader in Napoleon’s army
Was Peter Stewart Ney also the legendary Marshal Michel Ney?
ROWAN COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - A group of French researchers and broadcasters, with help from local volunteers, spent most of Tuesday working to exhume the remains of Peter Stewart Ney from his mausoleum in the cemetery at Third Creek Presbyterian Church.
They’re hoping to finally be able to answer the question that has swirled around Ney for more than 170 years: Is he also French military leader Marshal Michel Ney who served with Napoleon Bonaparte until the fateful Battle of Waterloo?
“We would clarify one of the great mysteries of history. World history,” said local historian and writer Dr. Gary Freeze.
Marshal Ney was sentenced to death by firing squad for treason once Napoleon was defeated, but many believe that Ney managed to escape his executioners and ended up coming to America. Peter Ney is reported to have acknowledged on his death bed that he was Marshal Ney.
Those who believe that school teacher Ney was also the famous Field Marshal point to Ney’s name as one clue. Peter was the name of Marshal Ney’s father, Stewart was the the name of Marshal Ney’s mother. They say Marshal Ney could have escaped death at the hands of the firing squad if the soldiers were sympathetic to him and fired their shots slightly over his head. The story goes that Ney then clutched his chest and opened a “blood bladder” concealed beneath his shirt to look like a gunshot wound. Sympathetic nuns then rushed to Ney and took him away for “burial,” but instead, helped him to get to a ship to leave France.
A plaque on the mausoleum reads “In Memory of Peter Stewart Ney, A Native of France and Soldier of the French Revolution Under Napoleon Bonaparte Who Departed This Life November 15, 1846, Aged 77 Years.”
“He landed in Mocksville,” said Marcia Phillips, the historian at the Davie County Library. Phillips has researched Ney and has included it in her book “Davie County Mavericks: Four Men Who Changed History.” “A stranger with a French accent and he was a very educated man. If indeed he was Marshal Michel Ney, we would like to believe that he was because he came here and impacted a generation.”
Peter Ney eventually settled in Rowan County in the town of Cleveland. The school where he taught is on the grounds of Third Creek Presbyterian Church.
The mystery over Ney’s identity has puzzled historians around the world for generations.
“If we were to discover that the Ney here is the same Ney that is Marshal Michel Ney in France, we will, in a sense, demystify one of the great stories of world history,” said Freeze. “I personally believe the two men are the same. The data is controversial, the evidence is contradictory, you simply under our current circumstances can’t know which they are.”
The work is being done for the television series Historie au Scalpel (History and the Scalpel). Director Dominique Adt and producer Mathieu Hucher have been onsite, along with a photojournalist and archaeologist and actress Jennifer Kerner.
Using volunteers from the church, the crew first removed a glass panel on the side of the brick mausoleum. Then shovel after shovel of brick chips was removed from the top of Ney’s grave. Then there was more shoveling to try and get to whatever may be holding Ney’s remains.
“I don’t know who’s down there,” said church member Steve Lloyd. “I’m curious to see if they truly do answer the question.”
The researchers are hoping to do a DNA test that might determine Ney’s identity.
Researchers from Davidson College were also present. The school has an extensive collection of papers and artifacts from Peter Stewart Ney.
Many historians believe Marshal Ney was executed by that firing squad on Dec. 7, 1815. There is a gravesite in Paris at Père Lachaise Cemetery. Still, there are those who believe that Peter Ney is Marshal Ney, and they’re hopeful that this new effort may prove the point.
“He knew so much. He taught the boys, he talked about the Napoleonic Wars like he had been there, so either he was a very very good pretender, but we prefer to think maybe the real thing,” Phillips added.
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