Column: Ney mystery still raises questions

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 5, 2007

To the victor go the spoils and a favorable spin in history. But what can we make of the way history has treated Marshal Michel Ney?

For more than a century, many have believed that Peter Stewart Ney, who taught school in this region in the early 1800s, was one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s most trusted marshals, Michel Ney, escaped from a faked execution.

Rowan Public Library has produced a documentary about the great Ney mystery, and as I worked on a story about it, I wondered. Could it be true? Wiser heads who have researched the subject thoroughly certainly believe so.

While reading about the debate over the identity of Peter Ney, I began to wonder instead who Michel Ney was. What kind of person was the marshal, and was he the type to become a beloved school teacher?

Very different depictions come to life in biographies I checked.

These were biographies of Napoleon, mind you, not Ney. I was looking for a source that was not so enamored of Ney that he or she would devote a book to him.

I was looking for an unbiased, definitive history.

No such thing exists, I’ve concluded.

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Commanders under Napoleon were known to be self-serving, according to Frank McLynn’s “Napoleon: A Biography,” and Michel Ney was the most difficult personality among “this galaxy of prima donnas.”

While exiled on the island of St. Helena, according to McLynn, Napoleon corresponded with a friend who evidently spoke highly of two of his former marshals, Lannes and Ney.

“You are fooling yourself if you regard Lannes thus,” Napoleon said. “He and Ney were both men who would slit your belly if they thought it to their advantage. But on the field of battle they were beyond price.”

McFlynn also says that after Napoleon matched Ney up with a wife, Aglae Augure, Ney tried to trap Napoleon into bedding her in order for Ney to gain leverage as he climbed through the ranks. The ploy failed, though — Napoleon was not interested — and Ney supposedly resented him for it the rest of his life.

In other passages, the book refers to Ney as “incapable of following orders,” “headstrong and unreliable” and an “ingrate.”

That does not sound like the brilliant, loyal marshal we usually hear about in the Ney story — nor the type of person who would devote himself to teaching children later in life.

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On the other hand, “Napoleon Bonaparte: An Intimate Biography,” by Vincent Cronin, describes Ney as “a red-headed, tobacco-chewing hero whom Napoleon valued at 300 million francs.”

And here’s another spin on his wife’s role in Ney’s career. When Napoleon invited Ney to rejoin him after exile, Ney had already promised the king he would “bring back Napoleon in an iron cage.” As the “simple minded” Ney weighed his options, Cronin says, the deciding factor was the treatment his wife received in the king’s court. He supposedly told a friend, “I have had enough of seeing my wife come home in tears after a day of snubs. Clearly, the king doesn’t want us. Only with Bonaparte shall we be respected,” and he sided with Napoleon.

That explains why Ney later faced execution, but how sad to think a man so concerned about his wife would never see her again after he escaped the firing squad — if indeed he did.

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Another Napoleon biography, one written by Alan Schom, says Napoleon described Ney as “brave and nothing more … good at leading 10,000 men into battle, but other than that … a real blockhead.”

Schom contends that Napoleon was a paranoid psychopath and a cold-hearted manipulator. Such a person might indeed belittle his most loyal marshal and understate his intellect.

But Schom also says Ney often either disobeyed or failed to follow Napoleon’s orders.


Devoted marshal or opportunist? Manipulator or protector?

Was Michel Ney the loyal warrior who had horse after horse shot out from under him at Waterloo or the blundering blockhead who contributed to that great defeat?

The more you look into history, the harder it is to believe any of it is completely true.

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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.