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Is one of Napoleon’s marshals buried at Airlie?

Ben Steelman

That’s the gist of one local legend, mentioned in Louis T. Moore’s “Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear” and in Susan Taylor Block’s “Airlie: The Garden of Wilmington.”

A white marble tombstone at Airlie Gardens, some distance from the burial ground by the Lebanon Chapel, bears the inscription “Known in Eternity, J.H.”

The story goes that this is the grave of a mysterious Frenchman who went by the name of John Hill. Appearing in Wilmington in the 1840s, he tutored children of the Wright family and of their in-law, Richard Bradley, and lived with the Bradley family. Supposedly, he liked to sit under the oak trees at the very spot where he was buried.

After his death, a paper was found among his personal effects, bearing the words, “I am the Marshal.” It is assumed he meant Michel Ney, duc d’Elchingen, Prince of Moscow and marshal of the French Empire. A barrel-maker’s son, Ney rose from the rank of private in France’s revolutionary wars and became one of Napoleon’s most trusted commanders.

History records that Ney was executed by firing squad on Dec. 7, 1815, condemned to death for treason for deserting the French royal forces and supporting Napoleon in his attempt to recover the throne during the “Hundred Days” that led up to Waterloo.

A strong tradition, however, claims that Ney did not die but escaped. (It’s a romantic tale, involving the swapping of corpses, etc.) All conventional historians, however, reject that tale as a myth.

Block points out that the buried-at-Airlie tradition closely parallels another Marshal Ney story circulating in North Carolina.

In January 1816, a man going by the name of Peter Stuart Ney, and claiming to be a French fencing master, showed up in Charleston, S.C. He eventually settled in the North Carolina Piedmont, where he taught school and became celebrated for his talent at drilling militiamen. He was skilled at dueling, devoured volumes of French history and attempted suicide upon learning of Napoleon’s death on St. Helena. Among other accomplishments, he designed the seal of Davidson College (still in use), which preserves a number of his books and effects in its collection.

The mysterious Peter Stuart Ney had red hair, like the marshal, and a number of saber scars about his face. After the fact, many North Carolinians claimed he resembled portraits of Marshal Ney. On his deathbed, in 1846, he was supposed to have confessed that he was, in fact, the marshal.

Most historians don’t believe that story either.

Some theories hold that Peter Stuart Ney was an Irish renegade who may have served in the French imperial army and had his imagination dazzled by Napoleonic hero worship until he believed that he really was one of the Emperor’s marshals. At any rate, that Ney’s remains rest not at Airlie, but in the cemetery of Third Creek Presbyterian Church in Rowan County. (For more on the tale, see “North Carolina Legends” by Richard Walser.)

Related links:

Where are the bodies buried?

What is the history of Delgado Cemetery?

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