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Michel Ney- Family Legend or Family Lie
The Truth? We'll Never Know
Many, many generations have passed since the birth of brothers Jean and Michel Ney. That these two men were born in Saarlouis, France is a fact, that they were respectfully born in 1767 and 1769 is also fact, that their parents are Pierre and Marguarite Ney, unquestionable, but who were they?
Family legend tells us that Jean Ney is my more "greats" than I can count Grandfather, making Michel Ney, my oh so many times removed Uncle. Family tradition hasn't changed, and yet again, neither has history. According to military record Jean Ney was killed in the Battle of Trebbia (Italy), on June 20, 1799. Family history disagrees with those military records, and they have recounted the journey of Jean Ney's life. This tradition believes that Jean was not killed at the Battle of Trebbia, but that he in all actuality surrendered to the enemy, that he was imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp, and that he survived that same camp. He survived to tell his story to his family, and through the years it has been relived through generations of oral tradition, but is it accurate?
Michel Ney, was the far more famous of the two brothers. History has chronicled his life, his military prowess, his trial for treason, and his execution. Family tradition again disagrees, but what's the truth, and who will ever know? Anyone who could have proved or disproved the tale I am about to tell has been dead for more than 200 years; it is the stuff of legends; it's a cry that everything in the history books may not always be accurate, but in the end does it really matter? Maybe it's just a tale, but it is a good one, and when all is said and done you'll just have to judge for yourself.
Truth and Fact
Pierre Ney was a master barrel-cooper of Saarlouis, and a man who was skilled in this trade would be considered a very important person in any city, town, or region. Barrel-coopers supplied the barrels that enabled companies to ship, businesses to trade, and the layman to store perishable goods. These barrels have had many names and have served many purposes; casks, tuns, kegs, and hogsheads are some of the names by which they're known. Whiskey would be our first thought as to what they stored, but fish, meats, vegetables, and eggs were also protected, anything that could be stored for any length of time was.
Saarlouis, at the time of Jean and Michel Ney's birth was a predominantly French area that lay along the boundary of France and Germany. Pierre Ney, their father, was a French sympathizer. His own military history details him as having fought with the army of Louis XV, in his war against Frederich the Great. Pierre Ney was a loyal subject of the French king, and was favorably looked on as one one of the few sargeants who came away from the disastrous Battle of Rossbach, unscathed. Family tradition holds that his allegiance to France was bolstered by his fear the Prussia would one day gain the Saar, and his pro-French views were embraced at the dinner table and around the fire. His stories had a huge influence on the paths his sons would take, but that doesn't mean he didn't try and deter them seeking lives as soldiers.
"it's the same problem with every European army. Brains and courage are not enough. You have to belong to the nobility to gain advancement."
I'm sure his sons heard his words, and yet they both came to ignore them; Michel Ney even went so far as to prove him wrong.
The Beginnings of the Revolution
Our history books have always taught us that the French Revolution was in may ways a mirror to our own here in America. It was a battle for democracy and freedom from the rule of monarchy. The French people were fighting for democracy, they fought against the class system that left the majority of French citizens living lives no better than slaves. Louis XV, had been seen as altruistic; he was a compassionate ruler. Unlike the peasants in many other European provinces, French serfs had more personal freedom, and yet, like in the colonies they found the taxation placed upon them unfair and reprehensible.
Louis XV's death brought huge change to the French citizens, and any loyalty that the French monarchy had once had from its people deteriorated, and it deteriorated quickly. Louis XVI was weak in both person and policy; he gave away the rule of his country to the selfish, harsh ministers who would completely alienate the people of France while he lived in opulence, gluttony, and squander. The French people were arrested and imprisoned for as little as the taking of a loaf of bread to feed their starving families. The jails became overcrowded; they were bursting at the seams, and the people of France decided that they'd had enough. The day was July 14, 1789; it was the day the the French people decided to take back their country; it was the day that angry mobs broke out in riots, and it was the day that the jails were taken, and the prisoners were released by a people desperate for change, desperate enough to do violence. It was the start of a revolution.
The Storming of the Bastille
The capture of the Bastille found the beginnings of a new democratic form of government in the country of France. The country's new governing body was the National Assembly, and the King, although still King, was nothing more than a figurehead; he was a symbol.
France had always had a tumultuous relationship with surrounding territories, constantly finding themselves unable to hold onto their borders. The French army had seen no rest in its opposition against both the Prussian and Austrian armies which had simultaneously occupied Belgium, but by 1792, the French army had mustered up enough strength to contemplate an attack against its invaders, and pushed hard driving them back across the Rhine. Shortly after, they were successful in moving the Prussians out of Holland leaving the French in complete control of the Netherlands and Belgium.
Military victories aside, the French still had the biggest problem of all yet to be dealt with. What were they to do with the King and Queen? The government needed to make a decision about what to do with the "monarchy," and their decision led to the trials and executions of both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
The Early Years as a Soldier
Michel Ney was a second son, but he was also his father's first choice to succeed him in the family business. Pierre had noticed that Michel was not only extremely intelligent, but that he was confident and outgoing as well, and at the age of eighteen Michel was sent away as an apprentice to a lawyer. His father had hoped that this would either enable him to take over the family business, or even put Michel in a position that he would one day open a business of his own. Pierre's dream never materialized; Michel left his apprenticeship at the age of nineteen, and did exactly what his father had warned him never to do; he joined the army.
Adulthood and Promotions
Michel Ney joined the Volunteer Army, 5th Hussars, in 1788, and by the time the French forces had regained control of its surrounding borders in 1792, he had been promoted five times. Within four years he had been promoted to full lieutenant in the cavalry. Ironically, both Michel and Jean Ney had gone against their father's wishes, both served in the cavalry, and yet neither had ever fought in the same battle. They were brothers, but that was where it ended.
By 1794, Michel was named a Colonel in the Grand Armee, and it was in that year he fell ill due to a bullet wound in the arm. He disappears form history for a very brief two years during his twenty-eight of service. When he returns to the history books; he comes back on August 5, 1796, and he comes back a Brigadier General. The life of a soldier never stops, and the next few years found him making his way in what had become his chosen career.
By 1799, Michel Ney has entered what will be the most important year of his life. He is promoted to Lieutenant General. His courage in battle gained the respect of his peers, and during a battle against the Austrians on May 27, 1799; he left the safety given to him by rank, and went in to fight alongside his men. History tells us that he was an inspiration, it tells us of the cheers of his men, and it tells us that they fought all the harder because of his presence amongst them. He was named "le Rougeaud," the red head, although it wasn't his hair they were talking about; it was the color of his face in battle.
That same battle found Ney wounded three times; a musket ball in the leg, a bayonet through the foot, and a bullet from a pistol through his hand. Due to his injuries, Ney was allowed to retire to his farm in Colmar in order to recover. A few weeks later he received a visitor there, a visitor bearing the message that his brother Jean had been killed in battle, but this wasn't true; the message was wrong. Family tradition holds that Michel may at some point have been apprised that his brother had been captured and held prisoner, never to return to the French army after, but we will never know.
The fact that Jean Ney did indeed escape is truth; he settled in Midwolda, an area between the border of Holland and Germany, the same place where he had once served with his unit, and he lived there until his death. Jean Ney never knew that his military record had listed him "killed in action;" in fact, had he known he would never have hidden and started a new life with a new name. He thought he would be considered a deserter after leaving his internment in the prison camp because he never returned. He spent 15 years in that camp; do you think he would have been named a deserter?
The New Dictator
Ney spent just enough time at the farm to gain his recovery. Within two months he was both back in battle, and once again wounded. The Battle of Mannheim left him both reopening an old wound, and taking a bullet in the chest; he was named Commander in Chief of the Army. It was said that he tried to turn down the promotion, that he preferred leading his men in battle, but he received the promotion anyway. In November of 1799 the lives of the people were changed once again, they gained a dictator, and his name was Napoleon.
Five months after Napoleon declared himself dictator, Michel Ney led the first division march into Germany where he fought for eight months. On December 3, 1800, he led the final attack at Hohenlinden, and Napoleon impressed with his command met with him in private. It was the first time they had met, and after that meeting Ney was sent to home to "Le Petite Malgrange," his farm in Saarlouis. It was the first time he'd been there since he left at the age of eighteen. Seven months later he was called back to Paris, and it was there that Napoleon named him Inspector General of the Cavalry.
Hoping to keep Ney under his thumb, Napoleon encouraged Josephine to embark on finding Michel a wife of suitable nobility and political background. Josephine found twenty year old, Aglae Louise Auguie. After his marriage Ney was sent to Switzerland as a diplomat, and he was not happy.
By 1804, Napoleon had readied 120,000 soldiers in hopes of invading England; Ney was happy to be called back into action, but Napoleon had miscalculated. He had 120,000 men, and he had all the necessary supplies, but he had no money. The French coffers were once again empty, Napoleon was broke, and America gained the Louisiana Territory.
Years of Fighting
The next seven years found Ney traveling all over the world commanding French troops; Napoleon was crowned emperor on December 2, 1804. A battle against the Austrians found Ney named the "Duke of Elchingen," different battles in different countries gave him the titles of "bravest of the brave," and the "Prince de la Moskova." The titles would lead one to believe that France was invincible, but the facts tell us differently, and eventually we reach the year 1814; the year France was invaded by enemy troops; the year that the Dutch rose up against them in rebellion; the year that the alliance of England, Prussia, Holland, Germany, Austria, and Russia banded together in their invasion of France, and their common goal of destroying Napoleon.
At the urging of his military leaders, Napoleon surrenders on March 31, 1814; Michel Ney is made a part of the team who decide his fate. The "Treaty of Paris" is signed, and Napoleon is allowed to keep his title, guaranteed an income of 180,000 pounds of sterling per year, and is sent to retire on the Island of Elba. The alliance gives its word that it will pull its forces back to the Rhine.
It was Michel Ney who then informed Louis XVIII, that he was returned to the throne that once belonged to his brother, that the monarchy had been re-established. In turn, Ney swore his support to the new king, and was allowed to keep his position in the government. Michel chose to retire, and his retirement almost lasted a year, but in February of of 1815, Napoleon escaped from the Island of Elba, and Ney was once again called to duty for his country. He was called back to capture Napoleon, and he made a promise he would.
Finding Napoleon and Facing the Firing Squad
Michel Ney was successful in finding Napoleon, but he never never fulfilled his promise to Louis XVIII. He did not bring him back to Paris in an "iron cage." What he did do was welcome Napoleon with open arms, and join the many people of France who had done just that same thing. Louis XVIII, "got the hell out of Dodge (Paris :)," and Napoleon began his "One Hundred Days," which ended in Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, and his exile to the Island of Helena. Ney was arrested trying to escape into Switzerland, and made to stand trial for treason, the trial that ended with a sentence of death by firing squad. The Marshal of France was named traitor and sentenced to death.
"Sentence executed as ordered."
Family tradition tells us that Michel Ney, the Marshal of France did not die that day, that he did not experience death by firing squad, and that his escape was carefully and methodically planned by members of the Masonic Lodge. Ney, a Freemason, was saved from death by the interventions of the Duke of Wellington, also a freemason.
It was decided that if Ney made a promise to go to America, and to never reveal the names of his rescuers, he would be spared execution. It is legend that tells us that only one member of the firing squad, and one member of the burial crew would know of the secret; both were masons. Guns were loaded with blanks, Ney was supplied with a simple red fluid that would serve as blood, and Ney himself requested that he be shot through the heart; he asked that they not fire at his face, and he motioned to his heart in plea.
His body was quickly put into a coffin and turned over to friends. From there they tell us that he was disguised, boarded onto a Spanish schooner, and finally transferred to the ship of a privateer who transported him to the coast of Florida.
Family tradition tells us that he settled in the Carolina's where he finished out his life teaching school, and that his life spanned another fifteen years. They say he kept his secret all of the remaining years of his life, but that he admitted his identity on his deathbed, that as he lay dying he murmured the words, " Bessieres is dead; the old guard is dead, now please let me die." His gravestone is marked with the name of Peter Stuart Ney; it also reads, "soldier of the French Revolution under Napoleon Bonaparte," and he is buried in Cleveland, North Carolina. That Peter Stuart Ney is buried there is a fact, that he once was the Marshal of France, that is legend. There is no proof; there are only tales, legends, and a simple Masonic statement from 1920, that the escape was not only rumored, but possible.
F. Wm. E. Cullingford, supplied a Masonic statement extracted from, The New England Craftsmen." He tells of the plans as they are remembered within the Masonic Lodge and its members, it ended like this..........
"Possibly the tale is merely a legend without foundation in fact, but I have given it as it has been told me by those who firmly believe in the truth of this tale. If it is so, it is merely another proof of the all- pervading spirit of Masonry, and another example of what Masons have done for their brothers in the past."
His assessment supports the legend, but lie or legend; it's a great tale.