Digging for answers: Grave of supposed French marshal excavated to determine the truth

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, July 6, 2022

CLEVELAND — A  French documentary crew came to Cleveland on Tuesday with a mission to crack the speculation surrounding the Rowan County legend of Peter Stuart Ney.

Ney, who taught in schoolhouses all down the East Coast, claimed to be the same French marshal who served under Napoleon Bonaparte’s command during the French revolutionary wars. He confessed this shocking alias on his deathbed when he died on Nov. 15, 1846, as Michel Ney, the marshal, who was believed to have been executed by a firing squad in France 30 years earlier.

The grave is in the cemetery at Third Creek Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, tucked away from the road with headstones dating back to its establishment in the 18th century. The burial site has been dug up twice by individuals over the years, but this is the first time it’s being excavated for historical closure. The result of previous unearthings has led to the construction of a chain fence around the grave with a small, brick mausoleum over it with windows to see in.

Coming from France, the television series Historie au Scalpel (History and the Scalpel) came to film on site with director Dominique Adt and producer Mathieu Hucher.

Marcia Phillips guided the team through the graveyard on camera to explain the history of the area.

Phillips, who is a historian at the Davie County Library, has done years of research on Ney and she has compiled it into the book, “Davie County Mavericks: Four Men Who Changed History.”

“It’s so poignant that he inspired so many generations,” said Phillips. “He was this really unique guy, even if it turns out he’s not Michel, he impacted education.”

Locals and historians alike came to the cemetery on the hot Tuesday morning to follow the mission, including individuals with family connected to the legend.

“There’s so many nuggets of proof,” said David Hall, who lives in the old house that once was the home of Ney in Cleveland. “If you put all of them together, there’s no way they’re not the same person.”

Most individuals on site believed Ney’s word when he claimed his past as a French marshal for Napoleon. From pulling on the ears of his students to being a polyglot of at least five languages, it seems that this would be enough proof for people to believe he was Napoleon’s marshal.

“This is almost like Christmas for a historian,” said Amanda Barbee, an alumni of Catawba College who now is pursuing her doctorate degree at Liberty University.

After being deemed a traitor and charged with treason, Michel Ney was shot from above by firing squads. Legend has it that he had a bag of gore and blood under his shirt so when he collapsed to his stomach, it would explode as if he had been shot. It was then he could escape to the East Coast of the United States to flee from assassination in one of the most rural parts of North Carolina at the time.

Marshal Ney allegedly took the names of his father and mother to disguise himself as Peter Stuart Ney. In the U.S., he would teach the children of planters and lived in Lincoln and Rowan counties. He wanted to stay in the United States until Napoleon took France back over but after the execution of the emperor and his son, Peter Ney lost hope of returning to France and developed a drinking problem.

To prove if Peter Ney was the French marshal, archaeologist and actress Jennifer Kerner, who specializes in body excavation, dug herself elbow deep into sediment to find any DNA evidence that would match with what had been provided by Michel Ney’s relatives in France since the television crew was not allowed to open Michel Ney’s tomb. Legend has it that the burial site across the Atlantic doesn’t hold a body. As of Tuesday afternoon, she had only discovered a penny. According to her, there was still hope to find evidence.

“With a guy this unique, there’s a reason why people still talk about him,” says Gary Freeze, a historian and former history professor at Catawba College.

If DNA evidence is found in the grave, it will take a couple of days to scan and have it matched to what’s been provided by the descendants of Michel Ney. An update will be released once any such discovery is made.