The French soldier Michel Ney (1769-1815) rose from humble origins to become one of the principal military figures of the Napoleonic era. He was named Duke of Elchingen, Prince of the Moskowa, and Marshal of the Empire.
Michel Ney was born at Saarlouis on Jan. 10, 1769. He received a very elementary education and at the age of 19 enlisted in the army. When the Revolution swept over France, he embraced the new political and social ideas and in 1792 was elected lieutenant. During the Revolutionary Wars he rose to the rank of general (1799). The advent of Napoleon Bonaparte at the turn of the century led to a change in Ney's political views. He put aside his republicanism and became a staunch Bonapartist. His marriage to Eglé Auguié on Aug. 5, 1802, was the handwork of Josephine Bonaparte. With the establishment of the empire, Ney was named among the original 16 marshals.
As commander of the VI Corps of the Grand Army, Ney played a major role in the campaign of 1805. His victory at Elchingen led to the surrender of the Austrian army at Ulm and opened the road to Vienna. In recognition of this service and of the significant part he played in the Prussian and Polish campaigns of 1806-1807, Napoleon named him Duke of Elchingen in 1808.
Ney spent the next 3 years with the Army of Spain in the unfortunate struggle that provided neither glory nor victory. When the new Grand Army was assembled in the spring of 1812 for the invasion of Russia, he was given command of the III Corps. At the Battle of Borodino he commanded the center with distinction and entered Moscow with the victorious army. As the withdrawal from Moscow became first a rout and then a complete disaster, Ney commanded the rear guard. As the frozen remnants of the once proud army fled westward across the Neman River, Ney was the last to leave Russian soil. In recognition of his services Napoleon bestowed upon him the title Prince of the Moskowa.
The campaign of 1813 found Ney again at the head of a corps. He took part in the battles of Dresden and Leipzig, retreating with the army to France after the latter defeat. He also fought in the short but decisive campaign of 1814 and was at Fontainebleau when Napoleon signed his abdication.
When Louis XVIII ascended the throne of France, Ney was among the first of the Napoleonic marshals to pledge his loyalty. Although employed, he was not accepted by the returning royalists. Nevertheless, when Napoleon returned to France from Elba in March 1815, Ney denounced the former emperor and reaffirmed his support of the King.
No sooner had Ney taken up his command at Besançon than he deserted the Bourbon cause. Returning to Paris after Napoleon had reinstated himself, he sought employment in the army that was preparing once more to defend the empire against Europe. Napoleon refused his request. When hostilities began in June, the Emperor, hard-pressed for experienced corps commanders, placed Ney at the head of the left wing of the army (June 13). Ney played an important role in the week of fighting that followed. At Waterloo he led the last desperate charge against the English line. When all was lost, he returned to Paris in a state of complete despair.
Ney declared in favor of a second restoration of Louis XVIII even before Napoleon had decided upon his second abdication. When the list of proscribed officers was published in the last week of July 1815, Ney's name was among those at the top. He was taken into custody on August 5. The ultraroyalists, with the support of Europe, demanded retaliation. After considerable delay, Ney was condemned to death. On Dec. 7, 1815, he was shot in the gardens of the Luxembourg in Paris.
Further Reading on Michel Ney
The best record of Ney's life is The Memoirs of Marshal Ney (2 vols., 1833), which carries the story to 1805; Ney did not live to finish the work. More than any other Napoleonic marshal Ney has caught the imagination of historians throughout the Western world. Three reliable biographies in English are Andrew H. Atteridge, The Bravest of the Brave (1912); James E. Smoot, comp., Marshal Ney: Before and after Execution (1929); and Piers Compton, Marshal Ney (1937). Harold Kurtz, The Trial of Marshal Ney (1957), is very good on the last months of Ney's life. Among the books written to show that Ney was not shot in 1815 but escaped to the United States, two good studies are James A. Weston, Historic Doubts as to the Execution of Marshal Ney (1895), and LeGette Blythe, Marshal Ney: A Dual Life (1937).
Additional Biography Sources
Horricks, Raymond, Marshal Ney, the romance and the real, London: Archway, 1988.
Horricks, Raymond, Military politics from Bonaparte to the Bourbons: the life and death of Michel Ney, 1769-1815, New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A.: Transaction Publishers, 1995.