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"Pour encourager les autres": The Trial and Execution of Marshal Michel Ney

By Stephen Millar

By letting himself be caught, he has done us more harm than he did on the 13th of March!

-- attributed to King Louis XVIII on hearing off Ney's arrest on 06.08.1815

Marshal Ney arrived this morning [August 20] at Paris, escorted by two officers of gendarmerie. He was first conducted to the Prefecture of Police, and afterwards to the Conciergerie. It is thought he will be tried by a Council of Peers.

-- Boston newspaper report dated 13.10.1815

Ney and Labedoyere were the only victims offered up to appease an unjust hatred. Besides, Ney's person was sacred under a solemn treaty that Wellington had himself made. One of the articles of that treaty expressly declared that "no person should be molested for his political conduct or opinions during the hundred days." On such conditions was Paris surrendered, and there never was a more flagrant violation of national honor than the trial of Ney. The whole affair, from beginning to end, was a deliberate murder, committed from feelings of revenge alone.

-- J.T. Headley, "Napoleon and His Marshals," (New York, c. 1850)

Dans ce pay-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.

-- Voltaire in "Candide" [referring to the execution of Admiral the Hon. John Byng in Portsmouth, England on 14.03.1757]

Marshal Michel Ney in the Conciergerie

Marshal Michel Ney in the Conciergerie

One of the great ironies of Napoleonic history is that Marshal Michel Ney (10.01.1769-07.12.1815) - a veteran of most of the Empire's great and bloody battles - was killed in peacetime by French musket-balls. Found guilty of treason and executed in Paris later the same morning, the hero of the the Russian Campaign fell victim to both ultra-royalist fervor and to his own, often-impulsive, character [1].

Nicknamed "le brave des braves" by the Emperor after the Battle of Friedland (14.06.1807), Ney had been created duc d'Elchingen on 06.06.1808. He later received the title of "prince de La Moskowa" (25.03.1813) for his outstanding service during the disastrous Russian Campaign. With the dissolution of the First Empire in early 1814, Ney gave his alliegence to the newly-installed King Louis XVIII (King Louis XVI's brother, the former "comte de Provence").

During the first Restoration, the marshal been named the commander of the Sixth Military Division at Besancon (21.05.1814) and a Chevalier of the Order of St. Louis (01.06.1814). Although created a peer by Louis XVIII (04.06.1814), Ney became increasingly uncomfortable at the Bourbon court; he eventually left Paris to take up his new Division command. En route to Besancon, Ney learned of Napoleon's return from exile in Elba.

Ney's actions during the initial phase of the Hundred Days are a well-known part of the Napoleonic legend. He returned to Paris, reiterated his loyalty to Louis XVIII and with the famous remark that the usurper ought to be brought to Paris in an iron cage, he proceeded to Lons-le-Saulnier to bar Napoleon's progress. But instead of doing so, he deserted with his troops, and Napoleon's march became a triumphal progress. Ney's act was undeniably treason to his sovereign, but it was hardly the calculated treason that his ��migr�� detractors saw fit to imagine. The first violence of his language, his ineffective efforts to make constitutional guarantees the price of his adhesion to Napoleon, and his final surrender to the dominant personality of his old leader, all show him to have been out of his depth in this political crisis [2].

Less than a week later, the King abandoned the Tuileries and began his second exile in Belgium.

For many of the émigrés, Ney's actions were considered to be treason against the state, not merely "desertion in the field". When Louis XVIII was returned to the throne in the wake of Napoleon's defeat at the battle of Waterloo [3], the émigrés - and the extreme right-wing "ultra-royalists" - demanded retribution against Ney (and other high-profile officers and politicians of the First Empire).

On 24 July 1815, the King's government issued an "ordonnance du roi" containing the names of  57 individuals: 19 (including Ney) to appear before courts-martial and 38 to be either brought to justice or exiled from France. Other officers named in the "ordonnance du roi" included

Marshal Emmanuel, marquis de Grouchy (23.10.1766-29.05.1847),
General de Division Henri-Gratien, comte Bertrand (28.03.1773-31.01.1844),
General de Division Jean-Baptiste Drouet, comte d'Erlon (29.07.1765-25.01.1844),
General de Division Regis-Barthelemy, baron Mouton-Duvernet (03.03.1770-27.07.1815),
General de Division Antoine, comte Drouot (11.01.1774-24.03.1847)
General de Brigade Charles-Angelique Huchet, comte de Labedoyere (17.04.1786-19.08.1815) [4],
General de Brigade Pierre-Jacques, vicomte Cambronne (26.12.1770-29.01.1842),
General de Brigade Francois-Antoine, baron Lallemand (23.06.1774-09.03.1839) and his younger brother General de Brigade Henri-Dominique, baron Lallemand (13.11.1776-15.09.1823) [5].

Although it had issued the "ordonnance du roi", the King's government was aware of the potential problems in prosecuting these officers. "Opportunities for escape had been given to him [Ney] by the Government, as indeed they had to almost every other person on the list," C.A. Fyffe explains in his 1880 book, History of Modern Europe. "King Louis XVIII well understood that his Government was not likely to be permanently strengthened by the execution of some of the most distinguished men in France; the émigrés, however, and especially the Duchess of Angouleme, were merciless, and the English Government acted a deplorable part."

Marie-Therese-Charlotte de Bourbon, duchesse d'Angouleme (19.12.1778-19.10.1851) had great reason to hate members of France's post-Revolutionary regimes. She was the only surviving child of King Louis XVI's family; her father had been guillotined on 21.01.1793, her mother - Queen Marie-Antoinette - was guillotined on 16.10.1793, her 10-year-old brother, Louis-Charles (duc de Normandie, later "King Louis XVII") died in prison on 08.06.1795 [6].

She had married her cousin, Louis-Antoine de Bourbon, duc d'Angouleme (06.08.1775-03.06.1844) in Mitau, Kurland on 10.06.1799. Her husband was eldest son of the future King Charles X of France (09.10.1757-04.11.1836). Once referred to by Napoleon as "the only man in her family," the duchesse d'Angouleme was also known as "Madame Royale."

While the duchesse d'Angouleme and the émigrés demanded retribution for the victims of the Revolutionary Tribunals and the guillotine, they undoubedly recalled the most infamous execution of the Consulate era: the death of Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Conde, duc d'Enghien (02.08.1772-21.03.1804). The duc d'Enghien, who had fought in the émigré army against France from 1792-1801, was taken by force from his residence (at Ettenheim in Baden) to Vincennes near Paris. Initially charged with conspiring against the French government - later changed to  "bearing arms against France" - he was found guilty by a commission of colonels. Napoleon, as First Consul, refused to consider any form of clemency and the duc d'Enghien was subsequently shot in the moat of Vincennes castle.

Despite the King's government's willingness to let the men escape into exile, two officers on the proscribed list were arrested and executed by firing-squad: Mouton-Duvernet was shot in Lyon on 27.07.1815 and Huchet, one of the Emperor's former aides-de-camp, was shot in Paris on 19.08.1815 - two weeks after Ney himself was arrested in south-west France [7]. Other officers such as General de Division Bertrand, comte Clauzel (12.12.1772-21.04.1842) - the commander of the "Armee des Pyrinees Occidentales" at Bordeaux during the Hundred Days - escaped into exile, but were nevertheless sentenced to death "in absentia".

Ney's actions prior to his capture appear erratic, perhaps due in part to his political naiveté. After the Battle of Waterloo, he wrote to Joseph Fouche (who - with yet another change of loyalties - had been elected the head of France's new Provisional Government) in an attempt to clear his name. In his letter, Ney explained:

The most false and defamatory reports have been publicly circulated for some days, respecting the conduct which I have pursued during this short and unfortunate campaign. The journals have repeated these odious calumnies, and appear to lend them credit. After having fought during twenty-five years for my country, and having shed my blood for its glory and independence, an attempt is made to accuse me of treason; and maliciously to mark me out to the people, and the army itself, as the author of the disaster it has just experienced.

Compelled to break silence, while it is always painful to speak of oneself, and particularly to repel calumnies, I address myself to you, sir, as the president of the provisional government, in order to lay before you a brief and faithful relation of the events I have witnessed��

I expect from the justice of your excellency, and from your kindness to me, that you will cause this letter to be inserted in the journals, and give it the greatest possible publicity.

Joseph Fouche

Joseph Fouche

Unlike Ney, Joseph Fouche, duc d"Otrante (21.05.1758-25.12.1820) had excellent political skills. Referred to since 1793 as "le mitrailleur de Lyons" - for his zeal for executing suspected counter-revoutionaries in that city - Fouche had served every government since 1792. He had accepted his former position as Minister of Police during the Hundred Days, but would escape any retribution until September [8].

Fouche gave Ney a passport to escape into exile, but he apparently refused to consider using it. It was only after the King's government issued another arrest order - specifically mentioning him - that Ney made a half-hearted, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to flee.

Ney was returned to Paris under guard on 20.08.1815, placing Louis XVIII's government in a very unpleasant position. Not only was the government faced with the ultra-royalists demanding a trial, it had to find a high-ranking officer willing to head Ney's court-martial in the seven-member Conseil de Guerre - and to face the wrath of his fellow officers for doing so [9].

The government's first choice refused. When Marshal Bon-Adrien Jeannot de Moncey, duc de Conigliano (31.07.1754-02.04.1842) was ordered to assume its presidency, the marshal declined. In a letter to King Louis XVIII Jeannot de Moncey wrote:

"I believe, that after my letter of yesterday to the Minister of War, he would have judged sufficient the reason which I gave for refusing to sit in a court martial where I could not preside. I find myself mistaken, as he has transmitted me a positive order from Your Majesty on this subject.

Placed in the cruel dilemma of offending Your Majesty or of disobeying the dictate of my conscience, it becomes my duty to explain myself to Your Majesty. I enter not into the enquiry whether Marshal Ney is guilty or innocence. . .

Shall 25 years of my glorious labors be sullied in a single day? Shall my locks, bleached under the helmet, be only proofs of my shame? No, Sire! It shall not be said that the elder of the marshals of France contributed to the misfortunes of his country. My life, my fortune, all that I possess or enjoy is at the service of my king and country; but my honor is exclusively my own, and no human power can ravish it from me. If my name is to be the only heritage left to my children, at least let it not be disgraced. . .

Faced with Jeannot de Moncey's refusal - which earned him three month's imprisonment and the loss of his marshal's rank for eight years - the King's government appointed Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jordan (29.04.1762-23.11.1833), victor of the Battle of Fleurus (1794) and a veteran of the Peninsular Campaign in Spain [10]. Jourdan obeyed the King, and when it finally convened on 09.11.1815, the Conseil was composed of Jordan (as president), Marshal Andre Massena, prince d'Essling (06.05.1758-04.04.1817), Marshal Pierre-Francois-Charles Augereau, duc de Castiglione (21.10.1757-12.06.1816), Adolphe-Edouard-Casimir-Joseph Mortier, duc de Trevise (13.02.1768-28.07.1835) [11], General de Division Honore-Theodore-Maxime Gazan, comte de La Peyriere (29.10.1765-09.04.1845), General de Division Michel-Marie, comte Claparede (28.08.1770-23.10.1842) and General de Division Eugene-Casimir Vilatte, comte d"Outremont (14.01.1770-1834) [12].

The King's government now expected these officers to find Ney guilty of the charge of treason. However, after long deliberation, the Conseil voted 5-2 to declare itself "non-competent". The Conseil was more than happy to avoid the whole affair and defer the marshal's case to the Chamber of Peers - where Ney's trial began on 21.11.1815 [13].

In his well-known memoirs published in 1891, General de Brigade Jean-Baptiste-Marcelin, baron de Marbot (18.08.1782-16.11.1854) [14] is highly-critical of the Conseil:

Once the allies were masters of France, Louis XVIII, to punish Massena for having abandoned his cause after March 20th, included him among the judges who were to try Marshal Ney, hoping that out of enmity he would condemn his former colleague and so besmirch his good name; but Massena recused himself on the grounds that there had been disagreements between him and Marshal Ney in Portugal, and when this measure failed he joined with those judges who wanted Ney brought before the House of Peers. They had hoped to save him, but it would have been better if they had had the political courage to try him and acquit him....They did not dare!

It is not clear why the Conseil expected the Chamber of Peers to acquit Ney. While the upper house did include many former members of Napoleon's regime - Henri-Jacques-Guillaume Clarke, duc de Feltre (1765-1818), General de Division Jean-Dominique, comte Compans (26.06.1769-10.11.1845) and Marshal Francois-Christian Kellermann, duc de Valmy (1735-1820) were among those Louis XVIII had created peers - there was no guarantee Ney's former collegues would risk the ultra-royalists" wrath by casting a vote of "not guilty".

In addition, the Chamber also included a large number of pre-Revolutionary aristocracy: Jean-Paul-Louis Francois, duc de Noailles (26.10.1739-20.10.1824), who had lost his mother, wife and daughter to the guillotine in 1794; Auguste-Jules-Armand-Marie, comte de Polignac (14.05.1780-02.03.1847), who had been arrested with his elder brother in 1804 for conspiring against Napoleon; Joseph-Hyacinthe-Francois de Paule de Rigaud, comte de Vaudreuil (1740-1817), a former courtier at Versailles and friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette who had lost his fortune after the Revolution. There would be little, if any, sympathy for Ney within the ranks of the émigrés.

Ney's trial in the Chamber of Peers lasted from 21 November to 7 December. Although the former Minister of War, Marshal Laurent, marquis de Gouvion St. Cyr (13.04.1764-17.03.1830) appealed for clemency, only one peer, Achille-Charles-Leonce-Victor, duc de Broglie (28.11.1785-06.01.1870), both spoke for - and voted for - Ney's acquittal [15]. "The verdict was a foregone conclusion, and indeed the legal guilt of the Marshal could hardly be denied," Fyffe explains. "Had the men who sat in judgment upon him been a body of Vendean peasants who had braved fire and sword for the Bourbon cause, the sentence of death might have been pronounced with pure, though stern lips: it remains a deep disgrace to France that among the peers who voted not only for Ney's condemnation but for his death, there were some who had themselves accepted office and pay from Napoleon during the Hundred Days."


The Execution of Marshal Ney
The Execution of Marshal Ney


There is disagreement among sources about the number of peers present in the Chamber on 7 December. In his 1982 book "Napoleon and his Marshals," A.G. McDonnell states the results of the voting were announced at 2 am. The details of the 160 votes cast were: 137 votes for "guilty" (and the death penalty), 17 votes for deportation or exile, five votes abstaining and a single vote for "not guilty." Another source gives the final tally as 152 "guilty" votes and 17 "acquittal" votes (169 votes total). However, Louis XVIII created 154 peers on 04.04.1815, removed 29 of them on 24 July, then appointed 94 additional peers on 17 August  - which would give a total of 219 peers eligible to vote.

The decision of the Chamber was executed that same morning. Fyffe explains:

"On the 7th of December the sentence was executed. Ney was shot [in the] early morning in an unfrequented spot [near the Observatory in the Jardin du Luxembourg], and the Government congratulated itself that it had escaped the dangers of a popular demonstration and heard the last of a disagreeable business. Never was there a greater mistake. No crime committed in the Reign of Terror attached a deeper popular opprobrium to its authors than the execution of Ney did to the Bourbon family. The victim, a brave but rough half-German soldier, rose in popular legend almost to the height of the Emperor himself. His heroism in the retreat from Moscow became, and with justice, a more glorious memory than Davout's victory at Jena [Auerstadt] or Moreau's at Hohenlinden. Side by side with the thought that the Bourbons had been brought back by foreign arms, the remembrance sank deep into the heart of the French people that this family had put to death "the bravest of the brave."

Three factors placed Ney in front of the firing squad. The first factor was that, by the letter of the law, Ney was indeed guilty of treason - although it may have been more "surrender-to-circumstances" than a calculated, premeditated act of treason (impulsive and hot-headed, Ney lacked the well-honed political and survival skills of Fouche or Talleyrand-Perigord). Bad judgement it may have been, but it was just enough bad judgement to have him face a trial.

The Conseil de Guerre's refusal to hold a military court-martial was the second factor. Had the Conseil handed down a verdict of "guilty with special circumstances" and imposed a non-capital sentence on Ney, the marshal might have avoided the death-penalty decision in civilian Chamber of Peers [16].

The third factor was Louis XVIII's inability - both politically and personally - to grant Ney any form of clemency, due to pressure from the ultra-royalists and their supporters in the Chamber of Deputies. It is an indication of the reactionary atmosphere in late-1815 France that not only did the duchesse d'Angouleme later regret her participation in Ney's death, but that Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier - the prefect of the department of Isere who fled Grenoble in March, 1815 - escaped punishment [17].

Editor's Note: Imaages provided by Tony Broughton.


[1] Ney was not the only Marshal of the Empire to be executed by military firing-squad. Marshal Joachim Murat (1767-1815), the former King of Naples, was executed on 13.10.1815 in Calabria, after a failed attempt to regain his throne.


[3] Napoleon abdicated on 22 June.

[4] Huchet and his 7th Line Infantry Regiment had deserted to Napoleon on 08.03.1815.

[5] A number of politicians who accepted government positions during the Hundred Days were included in the "ordonnance du roi" - including Lazare-Nicolas-Marguerite, comte Carnot (13.05.1753-22.08.1823) the Emperor's Arch-Chancellor and Minister of Justice and Anne-Jean-Marie-Rene Savary, duc de Rovigo (26.04.1774-02.06.1833), a former Minister of Police. An interesting exception was Jean-Denis, comte Lanjuinais (12.03.1753-13.01.1827), who had held the post of president in the Chamber of Peers.

[6] The two other children of Louis XVI had died before the Revolution: Sophie-Helene-Beatrix de Bourbon died on 19.06.1787; the first Dauphin, Louis-Joseph-Xavier-Francois de Bourbon, died on 04.06.1789.

[7] Marshal Guillaume-Marie-Anne Brune - perhaps the least-known of Napoleon's marshals - was murdered by a pro-Royalist mob on 02.08.1815 in Avignon during the so-called "White Terror".

[8] Fouche was replaced as Minister of Police by Elie Decazes (28.09.1780-24.10.1860) on 24.09.1815.

[9] Ney's accuser was General de Division Louis-Auguste de Bourmont, comte de Ghaisne (1773-1846), a pro-Royalist field-commander in the Army of the North who had deserted to the Allies at the beginning of the Waterloo Campaign. The lawyers which represented Ney prior to his execution were Pierre-Nicolas Berryer (22.03.1757-26.06.1841), his son Pierre-Antoine Berryer (04.01.1790-29.11.1868) and Andre-Marie-Jean-Jacques Dupin (01.02.1783-10.11.1865).

[10] Jourdan was admitted to the Chamber of Peers on 05.03.1819 with the rank of count-peer.

[11] Mortier had previously been removed from the Chamber of Peers for his actions during the Hundred Days.

[12] Jourdan was not the only one of Napoleon's marshals to assist the King's government. Claude Perrin [dit Victor], duc de Belluno (07.12.1764-01.03.1841), who accompanied Louis XVIII into his second exile during the Hundred Days, was also president of a commission which investigated the conduct of officers. Perrin later served as Minister of War.

[13] Another proscribed officer, General de Division Henri-Francois, comte Delaborde (1764-1833), was sent before a courtmartial but escaped punishment because of a technical error in the wording of the charge.

[14] Marbot had been promoted to the rank of General de Brigade on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo.

[15] One sources says General de Division Francois, marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat (18.08.1754-03.10.1833) also voted "not guilty".

[16] Sources are unclear about where the idea came from to have the marshal's case heard by the Chamber of Peers. Some sources say Ney's lawyers; others say Ney himself demanded it.

[17] Fourier also briefly occupied the position of prefect of the Rhone in the Napoleonic administration.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2006


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