Finding Josephine: ‘A’ for Effort, ‘D’ for History

A lovesick woman dons a Confederate uniform to find her husband in this indie Civil War drama.

Written and directed by country musician Rory Feek (cowritten by Aaron Carnahan), Finding Josephine (2019) purportedly follows the true story of Josephine Robison, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Confederate Army to find her husband. In many ways it’s a typical love story, but the film tackles issues of gender and sexuality during the war, topics usually avoided in this genre.

Finding Josephine is framed by the director’s personal story about how love letters he allegedly found in a farmhouse in Tennessee led him to write a song that sparked the love between him and his future wife, who tragically died of cancer. The film was originally supposed to be released in 2016, but the death of his wife postponed it. Feek inter-spliced their personal story with the film, topping it out at 81 minutes.

The year is 1864. Josephine Robison (Alice Coulthard) works on her family farm, while her husband John (Mitch Eakins) is off fighting in the 3rd Tennessee Regiment. Unable to bear her loneliness, she disguises herself as a man and enlists in the Confederate Army, where she hopes to find him. Her journey takes her all the way from the back roads of Tennessee to the trenches around Richmond, Virginia.

Along the way, Josephine falls in with a small group of soldiers, including a gruff old man named Tally Simpson (Boris McGiver), a sadistic sergeant named Sturgill Marks (Jessejames Locorriere), and a boy named Whit (Matthew Alan Brady). Every moment threatens to expose her secret. Can she survive the war–and her fellow soldiers–to be reunited with her lost love?

I give Finding Josephine an ‘A’ for effort, but a ‘D’ for history. I liked how the film tackled issues of gender and sexuality. You typically do not see that in Civil War films. Things like camp life, prostitutes, and homosexuality are usually overshadowed by larger-than-life personalities and dramatic battles. BUT…

While there were examples of women who disguised themselves as men to enlist in Civil War armies, the filmmakers obviously knew little about the war or how it was fought. A small group of infantry wouldn’t just wander around aimlessly, seemingly detached from any larger unit. I understand the filmmakers didn’t have the budget for large units of soldiers, but they could’ve made them cavalry scouts, or at least provided some explanation for their unusual circumstance.

Likewise for the Union soldier they encounter in the woods. What was he doing out there by himself? And why wouldn’t he just surrender when he saw he was outnumbered six-to-one? I found myself being taken out of the narrative again and again because of these silly and improbable situations.

Historically, John Wesley Robison fought in a Confederate artillery unit called Sparkman’s Company, Tennessee Light Artillery (Maury Artillery), not the ‘3rd Tennessee’. John was captured when Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered in July 1863 and walked home. Neither John’s artillery unit nor the real 3rd Regiment, Tennessee Infantry ever fought in Virginia.

According to a blog post written during the filming of Feek’s music video, the original letters on which Rory Feek based his song “Josephine” were transcribed in the 1960s by 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.

Finding Josephine had a lot of potential. There were hundreds of women who dressed like men and joined combat units during the American Civil War. That’s a cool story! Unfortunately, the filmmaker chose to ruin it by inserting himself into the story, raising unnecessary questions about the film’s origins and authenticity. A completely fictional film with a similar premise would’ve been much better. Not every period film has to be “inspired by true events.”

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Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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