This interesting Civil War tale is purportedly based on a true story, but there’s reason to be skeptical.
As both a Civil War and film enthusiast, I try to watch every movie set during the American Civil War. I recently purchased Finding Josephine (2019) on Amazon Prime, and thought this indie film was well constructed and had an interesting story. It revolves around issues of gender and sexuality during the war, topics usually avoided in this genre.
Its creator, country musician Rory Feek, claims the story is based on Civil War-era letters he discovered in a Tennessee farmhouse he purchased in 1999. The letters were written by a man named John Robison to his wife Josephine while he was away fighting in the Confederate Army. In the film, his unit is identified as the “3rd Tennessee.”
He wrote a pretty catchy song about the letters, and according to his Kickstarter page, a Virginia man contacted him with letters supposedly written by Josephine to John while John was fighting in Virginia. That inspired him to make a movie about their experience. In the movie, Josephine misses him so much, she dresses like a man and joins the Confederate Army and goes all the way to Virginia to find him.
According to Rory Feek:
“Josephine’s story is an honest one… We used excerpts from Josephine and John’s actual letters in the screenplay. After Aaron and I had written about half of the screenplay, we learned that in reality hundreds of women like Josephine actually served and fought in the Civil War as union and confederate soldiers.”
They raised over $121, 500 to make their film. Tragically, Feek’s wife contracted a deadly form of cancer, putting release of the film on hold until earlier this year.
I’ll post a review of the film soon, and what follows is by no means a criticism of the film itself. I enjoyed the movie. It was a lot better than many other low budget films out there, and had a cool historical premise.
However, I have strong doubts as to the truthfulness of this story. I emailed the filmmaker several weeks ago asking him questions about the history behind the film, and received no response. Here are some red flags when it comes to the film’s historicity:
No one named John Robison was in the 3rd Tennessee.
Both Union and Confederate armies maintained muster rolls of its enlisted men and officers, necessary to get payments to the troops, contact loved ones in the event of a death, prosecute desertion, and for other administrative reasons. The National Park Service maintains a database of over 6 million names of soldiers who served in various capacities during the Civil War.
A ‘John Robison’ was a member of the 5th Regiment, Tennessee Cavalry. There was also a J.C. Robison in the 39th Regiment, Tennessee Mounted Infantry. There are three more Robisons with a ‘J.’ abbreviation for their first name, but none in the 3rd.
The 3rd Tennessee did not fight in Virginia
A major plot point in the film is that Josephine must travel from Tennessee to Virginia in 1864 to find her husband, who is fighting in the “3rd TN” around Richmond/Petersburg. There were actually two units with that designation. One, the 3rd Regiment Tennessee Volunteer Infantry, fought for the Union Army. The second, 3rd Regiment, Tennessee Infantry (Clack’s), fought for the Confederacy.
The 3rd TN mustered into Confederate service at Camp Trousdale, August 7, 1861 with five companies from Giles, three from Maury, one from Lawrence and one from Lewis County. The unit surrendered at Fort Donelson in 1862, its men were paroled and reorganized under a new commander. The unit fought in the Army of the Tennessee and never went to Virginia. It surrendered in Greensboro, North Carolina on April 26, 1865.
There were only six Tennessee regiments who fought for the Confederacy in Virginia in the Richmond/Petersburg campaign. It’s extremely unlikely Tennessee would spare troops for Virginia in 1864 with the Army of Tennessee engaged in its own desperate struggles around Atlanta, Georgia and central Tennessee later that year.
The original story was different
According to this blog post written in 2012 during the filming of Feek’s music video, his song was about J.W. Robison and his wife Josephine Eugenia Trotter Robison. John Wesley Robison fought in a Confederate artillery unit called Sparkman’s Company, Tennessee Light Artillery (Maury Artillery), which also never fought in Virginia. John was captured when Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered in July 1863 and walked home to Tennessee.
John’s letters to Josephine were transcribed in the 1960s by local historian Jill Garrett and written about in the year 2000 by Colleen Farrell for the Maury County Historical Society. I couldn’t find any evidence Josephine dressed as a man and joined the Confederate Army to find her husband, although there were rare instances of that happening.
Where are the letters?
If I was raising money for a film based on actual Civil War-era letters I’d discovered in my attic, I’d want to show people the letters. I would post pictures of them online or have their authenticity verified by a local historian. If this 2012 blog post is true, the story that Rory Feek found these letters in his farmhouse is bullshit.
Conclusion – Just Make a Fictional Film
Finding Josephine is an interesting film with a real historical premise. There were hundreds of women who dressed like men and joined combat units during the American Civil War. That’s a cool story! There’s no reason to make up a story about finding old letters in your farmhouse and trying to pass it off as true, especially when historical research online is so easy.
Worse, the way in which Feek fictionalized his “true story” makes it less believable. Why does Josephine need to go all the way to Virginia to find her husband? The movie is only 81 minutes long. That’s plenty of time to follow her husband’s regiment to Georgia or southern Tennessee, where it would’ve actually been.
There’s no reason to package Finding Josephine around this bullshit story. Just make it a work of Civil War fiction and have it start with her husband leaving for the war and end with them reuniting. That would’ve been a perfectly decent film that doesn’t try to put one over on its audience. This history buff wags his finger disapprovingly at Rory Feek.