Michel Ney

Portrait by François Gérard, 1805
Nickname(s)Le Rougeaud, le Brave des Braves
Born(1769-01-10)10 January 1769
Sarrelouis, Three Bishoprics, France
(now Saarlouis, Saarland, Germany)
Died7 December 1815(1815-12-07) (aged 46)
Paris, France
Allegiance Kingdom of France
 Kingdom of the French
 French First Republic
 First French Empire (until 1814)
Bourbon Restoration (until 1815)
 First French Empire (1815)
Years of service1787–1815
RankMarshal of the Empire
Commands heldVI Corps
III Corps
AwardsGrand Cross of the Legion of Honour
Commander of the Order of the Iron Crown
Selected battles

Michel Ney (French pronunciation: ​[miʃɛl nɛ]), 1st Duke of Elchingen, 1st Prince of the Moskva (10 January 1769 – 7 December 1815), popularly known as Marshal Ney, was a French military commander and Marshal of the Empire who fought in the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. He was one of the original 18 Marshals of the Empire created by Napoleon I. He was known as Le Rougeaud[1] (red-faced or ruddy)[2] by his men and Napoleon characterized him as le Brave des Braves (the Bravest of the Brave), a real paladin in the field, a braggart without judgment and decision in the workroom and after all is said, a Don Quixote.[3]

Early life

Ney's birthplace in Saarlouis
Ney's birthplace in Saarlouis

Ney was born in the town of Sarrelouis, in the French province of the Three Bishoprics, along the French–German border. He was the second son of Pierre Ney (1738–1826), a master cooper and veteran of the Seven Years' War, and his wife Marguerite Grevelinger.[4] He was the paternal grandson of Matthias Ney (1700–1780) and wife Margarethe Becker (d. 1767), and the maternal grandson of Valentin Greiveldinger[citation needed] and wife Margaretha Ding.[5]

His hometown at the time of his birth comprised a French enclave in the predominantly German region of Saarland, and Ney grew up bilingual, due to his German roots.[6] He was educated at the Collège des Augustins in Sarrelouis until 1782, when he began working as a clerk in a local notary's office, and in 1784 was employed in mines and forges.[7]

Military career

French Revolutionary Wars

Michel Ney as a sous-lieutenant in the 4th Hussars in 1792 by Adolphe Brune, 1834
Michel Ney as a sous-lieutenant in the 4th Hussars in 1792 by Adolphe Brune, 1834

Life as a civil servant did not suit Ney, and he enlisted in the Colonel-General Hussar Regiment in 1787.[5] Under the Bourbon monarchy, entry to the officer corps of the French Army was restricted to those with four quarterings of nobility (i.e., two generations of aristocratic birth). However, Ney rapidly rose through the non-commissioned officer ranks.

Following the French Revolution, Ney continued to serve in what was now the French Revolutionary Army, in the Army of the North. In September 1792 he saw action at the Battle of Valmy and in October was commissioned as an officer under the Republic. As an officer he participated in the Battle of Neerwinden in 1793 and was wounded at the Siege of Mainz, also in 1793. in June 1794, he was transferred to Army of Sambre-et-Meuse.

Ney was promoted to brigadier general in August 1796, and commanded cavalry on the German fronts. On 17 April 1797, during the Battle of Neuwied, Ney led a cavalry charge against Austrian lancers trying to seize French cannons. The lancers were beaten back, but Ney’s cavalry were counter-attacked by heavy cavalry. During the mêlée, Ney was thrown from his horse and captured in the vicinity of the municipality of Dierdorf; on 8 May he was exchanged for an Austrian general.[8] Following the capture of Mannheim, Ney was promoted to géneral de division on 28 March 1799.[9] Later in 1799, Ney commanded cavalry in the armies of Switzerland and the Danube.[9] At Winterthur, Ney received wounds in the thigh and wrist. After recovering he fought at Hohenlinden under General Jean Victor Marie Moreau in December 1800.[9] From September 1802, Ney commanded French troops in Switzerland and performed diplomatic duties.

Napoleonic Wars

Ney at the Battle of Eylau
Ney at the Battle of Eylau

On 19 May 1804, Ney received his marshal's baton, emblematic of his status as a Marshal of the Empire, the Napoleonic era's equivalent of Marshal of France.[10] In the 1805 campaign, Ney took command of the VI Corps of the Grande Armée and was praised for his conduct at Elchingen.[10] In November 1805, Ney invaded Tyrol, capturing Innsbruck from Archduke John. In the 1806 campaign, Ney fought at Jena and then occupied Erfurt. Later in the campaign, Ney successfully besieged Magdeburg. In the 1807 campaign, Ney arrived with reinforcements in time to save Napoleon from defeat at Eylau, although the battle ended in a draw. Later in the campaign, Ney fought at Güttstadt and commanded the right wing at Friedland. On 6 June 1808, Ney was made Duke of Elchingen.[10] In August 1808, he was sent to Spain in command of the VI Corps and saw action in a number of minor engagements. In 1809, he skirmished with an Anglo-Portuguese force under Sir Robert Thomas Wilson at Puerto de Baños. In 1810, Ney joined Marshal André Masséna in the invasion of Portugal, where he captured Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida, and saw further action on the River Côa, and at Bussaco. During the retreat from the Torres Vedras, Ney engaged Wellington's forces in a series of rearguard actions (Pombal, Redinha, Casal Novo, and Foz d'Arouce) through which he managed to delay the pursuing Coalition forces long enough to allow the main French force to retreat intact. He was ultimately removed from his command for insubordination.[10]

Russia to Fontainebleau

Ney at the Battle of Kovno in 1812, by Denis-August-Marie Raffet
Ney at the Battle of Kovno in 1812, by Denis-August-Marie Raffet

Ney was given command of the III Corps of the Grande Armée during the invasion of Russia in 1812. At Smolensk, Ney was wounded in the neck but recovered enough to later fight in the central sector at Borodino. During the retreat from Moscow, Ney commanded the rearguard (and was accidentally known as "the last Frenchman on Russian soil" because of it). After being cut off from the main army during the Battle of Krasnoi, Ney managed to escape in a heavy fog over the Dnieper River, but not without heavy losses, and to rejoin it in Orsha, which delighted Napoleon.[10] For this action Ney was given the nickname "the bravest of the brave" by the emperor.[10] Ney fought at the Berezina and helped hold the vital bridge at Kovno (modern-day Kaunas), where legend portrays Ney as the last of the invaders to cross the bridge and exit Russia.[10] On 25 March 1813, Ney was given the title of Prince of the Moskva.[10] During the 1813 campaign, Ney fought at Weissenfels, was wounded at Lützen, and commanded the left wing at Bautzen. Ney later fought at Dennewitz and Leipzig, where he was again wounded. In the 1814 campaign in France, Ney fought various battles and commanded various units. At Fontainebleau, Ney became the spokesperson for the marshals' revolt on 4 April 1814, demanding Napoleon's abdication. Ney informed Napoleon that the army would not march on Paris; Napoleon responded, "the army will obey me!" to which Ney answered, "the army will obey its chiefs".[11]

When Paris fell and the Bourbons reclaimed the throne, Ney, who had pressured Napoleon to accept his first abdication and exile, was promoted, lauded, and made a Peer of France by the newly enthroned King Louis XVIII. Although Ney had pledged his allegiance to the restored monarchy, the Bourbon court looked down on him because he was a commoner by birth.[citation needed]

Hundred Days

Ney leading the cavalry charge at Waterloo, from Louis Dumoulin's Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo
Ney leading the cavalry charge at Waterloo, from Louis Dumoulin's Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo
A public proclamation by Ney, dated March 1815, urging French soldiers to abandon the king and to support Napoleon
A public proclamation by Ney, dated March 1815, urging French soldiers to abandon the king and to support Napoleon

When he heard of Napoleon's return to France, Ney, determined to keep France at peace and to show his loyalty to Louis XVIII, organized a force to stop Napoleon's march on Paris. Ney also pledged to bring Napoleon back alive in an iron cage. Napoleon, aware of Ney's plans, sent him a letter which said, in part, "I shall receive you as I did after the Battle of the Moskowa."[12] Despite Ney’s promise to the king, he joined Napoleon at Auxerre on 18 March 1815.

On 15 June 1815, Napoleon appointed Ney as commander of the left wing of the Army of the North. On 16 June, Napoleon's forces split up into two wings to fight two separate battles simultaneously. Ney attacked the Duke of Wellington at Quatre Bras (and received criticism for attacking slowly[13]) while Napoleon attacked Marshal Blücher's Prussians at Ligny. Although Ney was criticized for not capturing Quatre Bras early, there is still debate as to what time Napoleon actually ordered Ney to capture the town.[14] At Ligny, Napoleon ordered General Jean-Baptiste d'Erlon to move his corps (on Napoleon's left and Ney's right at the time) to the Prussians' rear in order to cut off their line of retreat. D'Erlon began to move into position, but suddenly stopped and began moving away, much to the surprise and horror of Napoleon. The reason for the sudden change in movement is that Ney had ordered d'Erlon to come to his aid at Quatre Bras. Without d'Erlon's corps blocking the Prussians' line of retreat, the French victory at Ligny was not complete, and the Prussians were not routed.[15]

At Waterloo on 18 June, Ney again commanded the left wing of the army. At around 3:30 p.m., Ney ordered a mass cavalry charge against the Anglo-Allied lines. Ney's cavalry overran the enemy cannons but found the infantry formed in cavalry-proof square formations. Ney, without infantry or artillery support, failed to break the squares. The action earned Ney criticism, and some argue that it led to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.[13] Debate continues[citation needed] as to the responsibility for the cavalry charge and why it went unsupported. Ney's cavalry also failed to spike the enemy cannons (driving iron spikes into the firing holes) while they were under French control (during the cavalry attack, the crews of the cannon retreated into the squares for protection, and then re-manned their pieces as the cavalry withdrew). Ney's cavalry carried the equipment needed to spike cannons, and spiking the cannons would probably have made them useless for the rest of the battle. The loss of a large number of cannon would have weakened the army and could have caused the Anglo-Allied Army to withdraw from the battle.[16] Ney was seen[17] during one of the charges beating his sword against the side of a British cannon in furious frustration. During the battle, he had five horses killed under him,[18] and at the end of the day, Ney led one of the last infantry charges, shouting to his men: "Come and see how a marshal of France meets his death!"[19] It was as though Ney was seeking death, but death did not want him, as many observers reported.[20]


The Execution of Marshal Ney (1868), by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Ney's gravesite in Père Lachaise Cemetery
Ney's gravesite in Père Lachaise Cemetery

See also: Second White Terror

When Napoleon was defeated, dethroned, and exiled for the second time in the summer of 1815, Ney was arrested on 3 August 1815. After a court-martial decided in November that it did not have jurisdiction, he was tried on 4 December 1815 for treason by the Chamber of Peers. In order to save Ney's life, his lawyer André Dupin declared that Ney was now Prussian and could not be judged by a French court for treason as Ney's hometown of Sarrelouis had been annexed by Prussia according to the Treaty of Paris of 1815. Ney ruined his lawyer's effort by interrupting him and stating: "Je suis Français et je resterai Français!" (I am French and I will remain French!).[21] When the Peers were called to give their verdict, a hundred and thirty-seven voted for the death penalty, seventeen for deportation, and five abstained. Only a single vote, that of the Duc de Broglie, was for acquittal.[22] On 6 December 1815, Ney was condemned, and on 7 December 1815 he was executed by firing squad in Paris near the Luxembourg Gardens. He refused to wear a blindfold and was allowed the right to give the order to fire, reportedly saying:

Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her ... Soldiers, fire![23]

Ney's execution deeply divided the French public. It was an example intended for Napoleon's other marshals and generals,[citation needed] many of whom were eventually exonerated by the Bourbon monarchy. Ney was buried in Paris at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Alleged survival

Records in Charleston, South Carolina, indicate the arrival of a "Peter Stewart Ney" the year following Ney's execution. Ney's father was named Peter, and his mother's maiden name was Stewart. "Peter Ney" served as a school teacher in Rowan County, North Carolina until his death on 15 November 1846. Supposedly, upon hearing of the death of Napoleon in 1821, "Peter Ney" slashed his own throat with a knife, nearly killing himself. Upon his death, his last words were "I am Ney of France".[24] His body was exhumed twice, in 1887 and 1936,[citation needed] but both times no conclusive proof emerged.

However, there is evidence contradicting this legend, the main being that the execution of Ney is well documented and verified. One researcher also claims evidence exists that Peter Stewart Ney was one Peter McNee, born in 1788 in Stirlingshire, Scotland.[25]


Ney's three eldest sons, painted by Marie-Éléonore Godefroid in 1810
Ney's three eldest sons, painted by Marie-Éléonore Godefroid in 1810

Ney married Aglaé Louise (Paris, 24 March 1782 – Paris, 1 July 1854), daughter of Pierre César Auguié (1738–1815) and Adélaïde Henriette Genet (1758–1794, sister of Henriette Campan and Citizen Genêt), at Thiverval-Grignon on 5 August 1802.[26][27] they had four sons:[citation needed]

Joseph also had an illegitimate son who was married and died childless.[citation needed]

In literature

In film and television

Ney has been portrayed by (among others):

See also


  1. ^ Macdonell 1934.
  2. ^ Horricks 1982, p. 30.
  3. ^ Kircheisen 2010, p. 189.
  4. ^ Riotor, Léon (1934). Amours et tragédie de Michel Ney, maréchal de France (in French). Fasquelle éditeurs. p. 7.
  5. ^ a b Chandler 1999, p. 360
  6. ^ Young 1987, p. 360.
  7. ^ Atteridge 1912.
  8. ^ Atteridge 1912, p. 25.
  9. ^ a b c Six 1934, p. 253.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Chandler 1999, p. 314
  11. ^ Gates 2003, p. 259.
  12. ^ Battle of the Moskowa refers to the Battle of Borodino (Markham 2003, p. 261).
  13. ^ a b Chandler 1999, p. 315
  14. ^ Roberts 2005, p. 116.
  15. ^ Markham 2003, p. 272.
  16. ^ Markham 2003, p. 276.
  17. ^ Howarth 1968, p. 132.
  18. ^ Parry 1901, p. 68.
  19. ^ "venez voir comment meurt un maréchal de France!" Coustumier 2011, p. 267.
  20. ^ Gillespie-Payne 2003, p. 111.
  21. ^ "Je suis Français et je resterai Français!" Bellemare & Nahmias 2009, p. 149
  22. ^ Macdonell 1934, p. 328.
  23. ^ Tsouras 2005, p. 245
  24. ^ "Peter Stuart Ney Confesses to be Napoleon's Closest Aide". North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Retrieved 24 May 2020.
  25. ^ Taylor, George V. (1991). "Ney, Peter Stewart". In Powell, William S. (ed.). Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved 16 March 2021.
  26. ^ Atteridge 1912, pp. 107–109.
  27. ^ The paternal grandparents of Aglaé (Ney's wife) were Pierre César Auguié (1708–1776) and Marie Guary (1709–1788); her maternal grandparents were Edmé Jacques Genet (1726–1781) and Marie Anne Louise Cardon, who were the parents of Edmond-Charles Genêt and Jeanne-Louise-Henriette Campan (Atteridge 1912, pp. 107–109).


Further reading