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Peter Stewart Ney

How did a man who supposedly served under Napoleon Bonaparte wind up buried in a rural North Carolina cemetery?


During the early 1970s, my father was pastor of the Third Creek Presbyterian Church in Rowan County, a long-established congregation with a rich history dating back before the Civil War.

Visitors to the church cemetery there will quickly notice a unique gravesite — a small rectangular mausoleum with windows on opposite sides and an inner chain link fence around the grave and thin tombstone inside.

There is a plaque on the outside that reads:

In memory of Peter Stewart Ney

A native of France


Solider of the French Revolution


Napoleon Bonaparte

He departed this life 

November 15th 1846

Aged 77 years

How did a man who supposedly served under Napoleon Bonaparte wind up buried in a rural North Carolina cemetery?

The disputed legend of who this man was is debated to this day, with people who say it’s fiction — and those who say unanswered questions make it possible it’s true.

Let’s look at previous reporting done by a couple of sources. The TV series “Mysteries at the Monument” did a segment on the Ney story. There is also an article about Ney at ncpedia.org.

Some of the following is based on those two reports, along with an interview I conducted with Gary Freeze, a Rowan County historian who contributed to the television show on Ney.

According to the history books, Marshal Michel Ney was one of Napoleon’s best field commanders. He fell out of favor about the same time Bonaparte did and was executed by a firing squad in view of many witnesses.

But that’s where the story begins to get interesting.

Ney was a member of the Freemasons, an organization known for going to great lengths to protect the lives of those among their number.

Some say Ney was able to get the firing squad to use blanks, and he took a container of blood with him and fell on it when shots rang out, splattering it all over the ground.

The legend says his Masonic friends spirited him out of France to the United States. One other interesting note: Some years later, what was thought to be Ney’s coffin in France was moved to a new location. The gravedigger reportedly discovered the coffin was empty and no body was ever found.

Sometime around the 1820s, a man named Peter Stewart Ney showed up in South Carolina and was employed as a school teacher. He moved frequently, apparently because he was afraid he would be recognized as Marshal Ney of France.

He finally wound up in the area near Cleveland, North Carolina, where Third Creek Church is located.

Legend says he taught his pupils with military discipline, and often used fencing in his teaching.

When I lived in Cleveland, a man named Ross Wood was a member of the Third Creek Church. He was in his 90s at the time, and some of his ancestors were pupils of Ney. Mr. Wood would recount stories of Ney taking the boys out for recess each day. He would ask each of them to pick up a stick and attempt to touch him with it.

Mr. Wood said none of the boys were able to do it, which certainly fits with the story of Ney being a gifted swordsman.

Freeze said several members of the Wood family in Cleveland were Ney students in the 1840s, so the relative who told Wood the story could have been among them.

In 1846, Ney became deathly ill. On his deathbed, he rose and said with what was described as great force, “I am Marshal Ney of France.’’ He passed away soon after that.

While getting him ready for burial, those working on him discovered his body was a mass of scars. Those scars were in places on Ney’s body similar to ones the French soldier Ney had gotten while fighting with Napoleon.

Finally in 2022, a team of French researchers accompanied by a TV crew came to North Carolina to dig up Ney’s grave. They also went to Davidson College, which has a collection of Ney’s possessions, and took DNA scrapings from a flute he once owned.

They concluded that whoever is buried in the grave at Third Creek isn’t Marshal Michel Ney.

But Freeze said there are still holes in the story and there is no smoking gun that proves one way or another if it’s Marshal Ney at Third Creek.

For one thing, the French group only dug about four feet into the grave according to Freeze. “They found absolutely nothing in the grave,’’ he said. “Not one bone, not one tooth, not one anything that was identifiable.

“If there was a fragment of anything you’d think it would be in the 6-foot range.’’

Freeze said there were rumors that graves in the cemetery had been moved around, but he didn’t find that plausible in a cemetery the size of the one at Third Creek. 

He also questioned the validity of the DNA scraping taken from Ney’s flute. “Who was the last person to play the flute?’’ Freeze asked. “The likelihood that Ney himself was the last person to play the flute seems highly unlikely.’’

While there are certainly numerous questions on both sides still unanswered, Freeze agrees that the Ney legend is not as healthy as it once was and as interesting as it is he thinks it will fade over time.

Regardless of that, whoever is buried in the grave, Marshal Michel Ney or Peter Stewart Ney, Freeze said he was a person with amazing ability and charisma.

“He was an astonishing figure in the history of North Carolina,’’ Freeze said.

Peter Stewart Ney France Bonaparte Third Creek Presbyterian Church Rowan County