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Benjamin Franklin Freeman


Benjamin Franklin Freeman

The version of Ben Freeman who appears in That Bright Land is in many ways a kinder, simpler version of my real great-great grandfather—who was a character in the folk sense of the term: fully alive and fully complex. This novel was inspired by him and the other mountain men and women of his generation, who lived through times that are difficult for us to even imagine.    

My grandfather’s full name was Benjamin Franklin Freeman, who was born on October 13, 1834 in Madison County, North Carolina, to Daniel E. and Margaret Horton Freeman.  He married Harriet Payne (also of Madison County) in 1862 after the birth of their first child. Harriet Payne Freeman would bear 13 children between 1861 and 1882; however, Freeman questioned whether the ones born after 1875 were actually his. Ben and Harriet separated several times between 1875 and 1882, when they each filed a suit for divorce. They were legally separated and lived consistently apart after that date but never officially divorced. Freeman died on July 24, 1907 and was buried in Madison County.

The historical events that occurred during Freeman’s lifetime played a large part in his life. He and his brother George fought for both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War: volunteering for and later deserting from the Confederate’s 64th North Carolina Mounted Infantry and the Union’s 2nd North Carolina Mounted Infantry. Additionally, there is reason to believe that Freeman and his brother rode with Kirk’s Raiders, the 3rd NC Mounted Infantry infamous for its use of guerilla warfare, during Kirk’s raid from East Tennessee to Morganton, NC, in 1864; although, wisely, Freeman never mentions the ride with Kirk’s Raiders in post-war interviews.

Freeman’s life is also emblematic of the death, poverty, and divorce that haunted North Carolina history in the decade after the war. His running battle with his wife Harriet—culminating with his stabbing of Harriet’s lover, his heavy drinking, and hard living are a fair example of life in the mountains of Reconstruction era North Carolina.

But these harsh realities are not the whole story. Freeman was a clever, articulate man who was not only functionally literate but a reader and story teller. Family lore recounts that he wanted to study medicine after the war and became a folk healer of no mean reputation. He was the primary parent to most of his children and probably raised many of them alone. He lived to be 73 years old despite his past battles, paralysis, alcohol abuse, and venereal disease. And in spite of all of the danger and despair he endured, Freeman is remembered as the kind and humorous man who held his family together through those dark years.