Chaffin, J. Thomas 1952- (Tom Chaffin)

views updated

CHAFFIN, J. Thomas 1952- (Tom Chaffin)

PERSONAL: Born November 21, 1952, in Atlanta, GA; son of James T. and Martha B. Chaffin; married Lena Margareta Larsson, August 13, 1988. Education: Georgia State University, B.A. (English), 1977; New York University, M.A. (American civilization), 1982; Emory University, Ph.D. (U.S. history), 1995. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Hiking, backpacking, birdwatching.

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of History, Bowden Hall, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: Esquire, New York, NY, researcher, 1980-81; freelance writer, 1981-85; Pacific News Service, San Francisco, CA, correspondent,1983-86; Emory University, 1996—, director of Oral History Project, 1996—, lecturer, 2001—. Taught at California State University, Hayward, and the University of Georgia.

AWARDS, HONORS: Mellon fellow, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, 1998-99.

WRITINGS:

AS TOM CHAFFIN

Fatal Glory: Narcisco López and the First Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1996.

Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire, Hill and Wang (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor to periodicals, including Nation, New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Harper's.

SIDELIGHTS: Tom Chaffin's interests—history as an academic subject and appreciation of a good story as a journalist—led him to write Fatal Glory: Narcisco López and the First Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba.

López was a Venezuelan who rose through the Spanish ranks to become an influential figure in colonial Cuba. After falling out of favor with the Spaniards and organizing a failed uprising against Cuba's Spanish regime, López fled to the United States. There between 1848 and 1851—initially in Washington and New York and later in New Orleans and Savannah, Georgia—he organized four clandestine expeditionary "filibuster" armies bent on invading Cuba and bringing it into the United States as three new slave states. Presidents Zachary Taylor and, later, Millard Fillmore both opposed López's efforts, and the federal government eventually used everything from Neutrality Act prosecutions to presidential proclamations to the U.S. Navy to oppose López. Two of his armies were thwarted before they could leave U.S. waters. Two, however, reached Cuba and engaged the island's Spanish garrison. The final landing, in August 1851, ended in a rout, and López himself was later publicly garroted in Havana.

Laurie Johnston noted in the Journal of Latin American Studies that although López is often dismissed by historians as being a servant of Southern planters, Chaffin argues that he "actually represented a cross-section of U.S. society, and that he spoke for what Chaffin describes as a republican and expansionist nationalism then competing in the United States with another form of nationalism, opposed to slavery." Howard Jones wrote in Civil War History that López "emerges as an American patriot who sought Cuba as part of the 'Young America' fever of the turbulent 1850s."

Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr. noted in Louisiana History that these invasions have been previously covered, particularly in the three-volume history written by Cuban Herminio Portell Vilá. Woodward continued by saying that Chaffin "makes a valuable contribution with this volume not so much by his description of the invasions themselves, but rather by his detailed description of the intrigues and behind-the-scenes maneuvering that surrounded these expeditions in the United States."

Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire is Chaffin's biography of a figure whose life is closely linked to various aspects of American history, including Western exploration and settlement, the displacement of the American Indians, the Mexican-American War, and the U.S. Civil War. Frémont's three federally financed exploring expeditions of the American West during the 1840s, Chaffin writes, covered far more ground and generated far more data than Lewis and Clark's earlier, single transcontinental expedition. During Frémont's third federal expedition, bending to military purposes, he became the nominal leader of the U.S. conquest of California, which wrested California from Mexico. In 1856, as the Republican party's first presidential candidate, he made an unsuccessful run for the White House against Democrat James Buchanan. He later served as a major general for the Union Army during the Civil War, and was an investor in various mining and railroad enterprises.

Frémont was also accused of crimes, self-promotion, and lying, and his enemies were quick to point out that his father was a French homewrecker. Chaffin notes that Frémont's bookkeeping records for his mining and railroad ventures were so inexact that they verged on fraud. He had powerful enemies, including philosopher Josiah Royce, General Stephen Watts Kearny, and Frank Blair, and Abraham Lincoln removed him from his Civil War command. Library Journal's Charles K. Piehl commented that Chaffin "sees his subject as tragic, used and ultimately pushed aside by a nation that had become larger than this larger-than-life man."

A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that Chaffin "takes pains to show what in Frémont's record was of his own making, and what was laid at his door by enemies." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Pathfinder a "superb biography.... There's something here for every history buff." Booklist's Margaret Flanagan commented that Chaffin's portrait "vivifies the extraordinary life story of an often controversial—but undeniably significant—American hero."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, November 1, 2002, Margaret Flanagan, review of Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire, p. 470.

Boston Globe, December 5, 2002, Scott W. Helman, review of Pathfinder.

Choice, June, 2003, P. D. Travis, review of Pathfinder.

Civil War History, December, 1997, Howard Jones, review of Fatal Glory: Narcisco López and the First Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba, p. 345.

Hispanic American Historical Review, November, 1997, Robert L. Paquette, review of Fatal Glory, p. 715.

History, spring, 1997, Frank A. Gerome, review of Fatal Glory, p. 114.

Journal of American History, September, 1997, John H. Schroeder, review of Fatal Glory, p. 663.

Journal of Latin American Studies, May, 1998, Laurie Johnston, review of Fatal Glory, p. 419.

Journal of Military History, July, 1997, Kinley Brauer, review of Fatal Glory, p. 618.

Journal of Southern History, February, 1998, Mary Seaton Dix, review of Fatal Glory, p. 131.

Journal of the Early Republic, fall, 1997, Dean Fafoutis, review of Fatal Glory, p. 550.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2002, review of Pathfinder, pp. 1276-1277.

Library Journal, November 15, 2002, Charles K. Piehl, review of Pathfinder, p. 79.

Lingua Franca, July/August, 2001.

Louisiana History, spring, 1998, Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., review of Fatal Glory.

Mississippi Quarterly, spring, 1998, Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, review of Fatal Glory, p. 363.

Publishers Weekly, September 23, 2002, review of Pathfinder, p. 61.

San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, December 13, 2002, David Kipen, review of Pathfinder.

Washington Post, January 5, 2003, Robert Wilson, review of Pathfinder.

ONLINE

Emory University Report Online,http://www.emory.edu/EmoryReport/ (January, 1997), Stacey Jones, review of Fatal Glory.

About this article

Chaffin, J. Thomas 1952- (Tom Chaffin)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article