By Marisa Mecke ’21 (she/her), Staff Writer
Davidson College and the Napoleonic Wars may seem worlds apart, but a local mystery may tie the two close together.
Davidson students walk past the college seal and motto everyday, whether it is the imprint on the side of the library or the front of Chambers. Peter Stuart Ney, a tutor to Davidson students in the 1830s and 40s, created these ubiquitous symbols. According to Davidson archivist Emily Privott, “Ney may be [Davidson’s] longest standing mystery.”
Many believe Peter Stuart Ney is Michel Ney, Napoleon’s top marshal of his 18 marshals during the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon Bonaparte came to power when he was first consul of France during the French Revolution and then became the first emperor of France. His forces fought the wars against an array of shifting European alliances from around 1792-1815, attempting to establish an empire of the House of Bonaparte, Napoleon’s family succession, and expand France’s territories across Europe. Michel Ney, son of a blacksmith, became an early advocate for Bonapartism, the support of Napoleon and an autocratic government operating with the assumed consent of the people. Ney joined the French army after the Revolution. He became successful in the military and rose to his position as a marshal working closely with Napoleon; Napoleon even called Ney “the bravest of the brave,” according to former Davidson archivist Jan Blodgett in a WRAL Tar Heel Traveler’s video. Ultimately, after Napoleon lost the war and was exiled in 1815, the restored French monarchy charged Ney with treason and executed him by a firing squad of his own men.
Ney’s story does not end in France, though. Records from Charleston, S.C. indicate a “Peter Stuart Ney” entering the United States only a year after the execution of Michel Ney. Theorists argue that the execution was fake and that Michel Ney fled with other men escaping political persecution on a ship to Charleston.
At this time, Presbyterians of North Carolina newly founded Davidson College in 1837. Peter Stuart Ney, an itinerant teacher who taught at different schools in the Yadkin and Catawba river regions, was one of Davidson’s first tutors.
In 1840, the Board of Trustees approached Peter Stuart Ney to design the seal for the college, Blodgett explained. Ney designed the seal featuring a hand clasped around a sword being driven through a snake.
Historians speculate that this design is in a “Napoleonic style.” Professor of History and American Cultural Studies at Catawba College, Dr. Gary Freeze wrote for the Salisbury Post that descriptions from students of Ney further support the theory that Peter Stuart Ney and Marshal Michel Ney are in fact the same person.
Freeze also stated that Peter Stuart Ney is said to have had a Scottish accent and would tell his students, “in very specific and copious detail,” that he was Michel Ney of France. Freeze explained that each piece of evidence suggesting that Peter Stuart Ney was actually Michel Ney is always met with a counterpoint. For example, Michel Ney was supposedly held in exile in North Carolina; however, he wrote letters back to France that were “delivered in diplomatic dispatch bags,” meaning others knew his whereabouts. The Davidson Archives contains a “handwriting analysis comparing Marshal Ney’s writing to that of P.S. Ney,” and the Davidson College Archives and Special Collections website wrote that “the handwriting of the two men has been determined by some experts to be the same.”
Davidson College Archivist Sharon Byrd said that Ney would himself put his identity into question. Byrd recounted former Davidson history professor and descendant of the founders of Davidson, Dr. Chalmers Davidson, and his tale that when Ney was drunk, or “in his cups,” as Dr. Davidson would say, he would state that “he was Michel Ney, and then when he sobered up, he would recant and say he was not.”
In a video with WRAL’s Tar Heel Traveler’s series, Dr. Freeze and Blodgett both recount an incident “when word came across that Napoleon had died,” Ney was “so distraught at the loss of Napoleon” that he attempted suicide, and in the process of doing so, “started babbling that he could never go back to France again.”
Peter Stuart Ney gave his most conclusive confession, however, when on his deathbed in 1846. At 77 years old, Ney used his last breaths to sit up and declare, “I am Ney of France!”
Peter Stuart Ney’s body is buried in Cleveland, N.C. near Salisbury. In an above-ground, brick tomb, Ney’s tombstone reads: “In memory of Peter Stuart Ney/ A native of France and soldier of the French Revolution under Napoleon Bonaparte/ Who departed this life November 15th, 1846/ Aged 77 years.”
Ney’s body has been exhumed twice; however, no conclusive evidence has been found to confirm Ney’s identity. Dr. Freeze stated, “We do not know what the remains are, in terms of what is there in the grave.”
While it is unclear if Ney was truly the French marshal, Byrd explained that many artifacts given to Davidson are from individuals whose ancestors were taught by Ney. She noted that the Archives’ most recent item was “actually purchased in an antique store.” Davidson archivist Debbie Lee explained that the alumnus who donated the item struck up a conversation with the proprietor of the antique store, who offered a “crystal glass that was used by Peter Stuart Ney!”
These items do not have letters of authentication, meaning it would be difficult to research and prove a link to Ney. Lee concluded that “these stories are interesting in and of themselves,” and that is “part of what makes them interesting is the mystery.”
Davidson Archivist Sara Swanson explained that the Davidson Archives has been trying to document the stories that have been passed down about Ney. The Davidson Archives blog and research guides are working to compile information, such as stories from former archivists and from individuals who donate items to Ney’s collection.
The Davidsoniana room on the second floor of the E.H. Little Library contains the Davidson Archives’ display of Peter Stuart Ney’s belongings. The exhibit includes a pair of eyeglasses, a compass, poems, and even a cast of Ney’s skull in a glossy, flooded case on the bookshelf to the right side of the room. Also in The Davidsoniana room is a bust of Marshal Ney. The Archives website describes the larger collection, which contains but is not limited to copies of poems and letters, a field desk, a dictionary, and a notebook, all of which belonged to Ney; original Marshal Ney documents, portraits of Marshal Ney, and a variety of biographies written on the two men. These artifacts document much about Marshal and Peter Stuart Ney but only describe some of Ney’s connection to Davidson. There is nearly no archival evidence of Ney from the 1800s that was kept by the college.
Swanson said Ney’s documentation with the college is fairly limited to the Board of Trustees and his involvement with the college’s seal. There are poems allegedly written by Peter Stuart Ney to local townspeople. Two of these poems are copies of acrostic poems Ney would occasionally write for Davidson students to give to their girlfriends, according to Sharon Byrd.
Swanson said Ney is “mainly recorded in the way that it’s local tradition and sort of passing-downs.” These people “somehow find value in [these items] and want to report it to other people to know about it.” The legacy and mystery of Ney is “a lot of local people [who] invested a certain interest in it and sort of telling and preserving the story.”
The Davidson Archives is not the only group invested in solving the mystery of Ney: their website details others who have studied Ney, such as Dr. Dorothy Mackay Quynn, a professor who has published numerous articles on Marshal Ney. The Archives contain Quynn’s research materials, as well as a collection of her correspondence, manuscripts, printed materials, and photographs relevant to her research.
A more local perspective appears in the Archives through James Edward Smoot, a physician from Concord, N.C., who published the book “Marshal Ney: Before and After Execution.” The Davidson College Archives holds Smoot’s correspondence regarding Peter Stuart Ney, original manuscripts and documentation for his book, and the supplemental edition that was never published, along with research notes, printed materials, newspaper articles, and photographs.
The Davidson Archives and Special Collections has “fielded questions from local people, scholars of a certain egress, and then also people from France” about Ney according to Byrd. Privott explained that a small mystery within the Archives department was that Ney “always travel[ed] in threes.” She said, “If we have one person ask, we often then have two more people ask. No explanation beyond that.”
Davidson digital archivist Molly Kunkel confessed, “I personally don’t subscribe to the Marshal Ney conspiracy theory, but it is fun how people can read into it.” She agreed with archivist Jessica Cottle, who said “there is still a lot to unpack” in the mystery of Ney. Kunkel stated that, if “you read some of the literature that is written about the conspiracy,” it gets “really, really weird” and “becomes very bizarre very quickly.”
The intrigue surrounding Peter Stuart Ney has continued for hundreds of years after his death and, according Swanson, has turned him into a “sort of local celebrity.” The question of whether Ney was or was not Napoleon’s marshal could create a link between North Carolina, and even Davidson College specifically, and an important moment of history. Dr. Freeze concluded that Ney was fascinating because he “is a link to the ongoing mystery of our past.”