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?

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Did Women Fight in the Civil War?

Yes! Hundreds of women donned blue or gray uniforms to fight alongside men.

The indie film 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. Although I couldn’t find any evidence the real Josephine Robison did this, hundreds of women during the American Civil War (1861-1865) actually did.

When the Civil War broke out between the North and South in 1861, women didn’t just sit on the sidelines. It’s estimated between 2.75 and 3 million men served in combat in Union and Confederate armies and navies during the war, which meant women were needed to tend farms, work in textile industries, sew flags and uniforms, and fill roles traditionally filled by men in that era. Thousands worked as nurses, and many others as spies. Some, like Rose O’Neal Greenhow, gave their lives for their cause. Still others served a more unsavory role as camp followers and prostitutes.

While impossible to know for certain, it’s estimated somewhere between 400 and 750 women disguised themselves to enlist in Union and Confederate armies. Some were quickly discovered and discharged for “sexual incompatibility.” Others were discovered when they became pregnant. But still others served their entire enlistment, fought in battles, and even died in the line of duty.

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Is ‘Finding Josephine’ Bullshit?

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.

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Field of Lost Shoes

An emotional tribute to young cadets who fought and died in the American Civil War.

Written by Thomas Farrell and David M. Kennedy and directed by Sean McNamara, Field of Lost Shoes (2014) tells the story of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who fought at the Battle of New Market during the American Civil War. Despite an obviously low budget and inexperienced cast, the film is charming and emotionally engaging; one of the better Civil War films to be released in recent years.

Robert (Nolan Gould) is a freshman cadet, or “Rat”, who falls in with a tight group of upperclassmen, including John Wise (Luke Benward), an ex-governor’s son, and Moses Ezekiel (Josh Zuckerman), an aspiring sculptor and the first Jewish cadet at VMI. The war forms a backdrop to schoolboy antics like hazing, stealing food from the Institute’s enslaved cook, Old Judge (Keith David), and pursuing a romantic interest with the local girls, including Libby Clinedinst (Mary Mouser).

War comes knocking on their doorstep, however, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant (Tom Skerritt) sends Franz Sigel (Werner Daehn) and Captain Henry A. DuPont (David Arquette) with an army to subdue the Shenandoah Valley. Opposing him with a much smaller force is Confederate general and former U.S. vice president John C. Breckinridge (Jason Isaacs).

Breckinridge badly needs reinforcements, and he reluctantly sends for the VMI cadets, who his battle-hardened veterans regard as nothing more than children playing soldier. Will the cadets get there in time, and more importantly, will they prove their worth on the battlefield?

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Past Shadows

Past Shadows
Monument to Big. Gen. Gustavus Sniper (1836-1894) in Woodlawn Cemetery, 800 Grant Boulevard, Syracuse, Onondaga County, New York. Sniper was colonel of the 185th New York Volunteer Infantry.

He was brevetted brigadier general on March 13, 1865 for “conspicuous gallantry in the battles of the Quaker Road and White Oak Road, Virginia.” These battles were fought at the opening of the Appomattox Campaign southwest of Petersburg, Virginia. The 185th NY was in Joshua L. Chamberlain’s (of Gettysburg fame) brigade of the First Division, V Corps.

Class of ’61: Disappointing and Forgettable Historical Drama

This made-for-TV drama meanders through the opening salvos of the American Civil War.

Written by Jonas McCord, directed by Gregory Hoblit, and produced by Steven Spielberg, Class of ’61 premiered on ABC in April 1993. This confusing drama follows members of the West Point class of 1861 and their families as they head off to join opposing sides of the war. It’s notable for an early appearance by Clive Owen, who is the only actor to stand out among the myriad of stock characters.

As the film opens, three friends, Shelby Peyton (Dan Futterman), George Armstrong Custer (Josh Lucas), and Devin O’Neil (Clive Owen), are attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. Tensions are high as Confederate troops fire on Fort Sumter, leaving cadets with divided loyalties. Shelby Peyton, a Virginian, decides to resign and head south to join the Confederacy, despite his engagement to O’Neil’s sister, Shannon (Sophie Ward).

Back home in Maryland, Devin O’Neil learns his brother Terry (Christien Anholt) has joined pro-Southern partisans, which upsets his pro-Union Irish family. Things get complicated when O’Neil is unable to secure a commission in the Union Army. He rooms with George Custer in Washington, DC, where he falls in love with Lily Magraw (Laura Linney), who also happens to be a Southern spy.

Things get even more complicated when Shelby Peyton returns to his plantation, where his favorite slave, Lucius (Andre Braugher), has killed two slave catchers in an escape attempt. He is forced to flee northward in the Underground Railroad, leaving his pregnant wife behind to an uncertain future. Will destiny reunite all these characters at the First Battle of Bull Run?

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One Last Time

One Last Time
Monument to Brig. Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr in Albany Rural Cemetery, on Cemetery Avenue off NY State Route 32, in Menands, Albany County, New York. Adolph von Steinwehr (1822-1877) was born in the Duchy of Brunswick, trained as a Prussian officer, and emigrated to America in 1847.

He raised a German-American regiment during the Civil War and rose to command a division in the Union XI Corps, Army of the Potomac. Unfortunately, his division bore the brunt of successful Confederate attacks at the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and he was later demoted to command of a brigade. After the war, he became a well-known and respected cartographer.