Chaffin, Tom 1952- (J. Thomas Chaffin)

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Chaffin, Tom 1952- (J. Thomas Chaffin)


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., 1977; New York University, M.A., 1982; Emory University, Ph.D., 1995. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Hiking, backpacking, birdwatching.


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


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


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


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.

Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah, Hill and Wang (New York, NY), 2006.

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


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 noting 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 contributor called Pathfinder a "superb biography," adding: "There's something here for every history buff." Booklist's Margaret Flanagan wrote that Chaffin's portrait "vivifies the extraordinary life story of an often controversial—but undeniably significant—American hero."

In Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah, Chaffin tells the story of the Confederate naval ship Shenandoah and its exploits at sea. Credited with sinking more than 300 Union merchant and whaling ships, the ship and its crew traveled to the far reaches of the world, including stopping off in Australia and sailing through the Arctic Ocean. In fact, the crew was so far out of touch with the world at large that it continued hunting for and sinking Union ships for four months after the Civil War had ended. The author writes how the ship's captain, at risk for being tried as a pirate, disguised the ship and circumnavigated the globe looking to finally surrender in England, where he believed the crew's safety would be guaranteed. In his review in Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Robert Gudmestad wrote: "The book is strongest in its straightforward account of the Shenandoah's surprising voyage. Nautical details and attention to the rigors of life aboard the confined quarters of a commerce raider will appeal to Civil War buffs and others interested in maritime history." A Kirkus Reviews critic called Sea of Gray "good reading for Civil War buffs, taking the naval aspect of the conflict well beyond the usual Monitor and Merrimac fare." A Publishers Weekly contributor also noted that the book is "sure to satisfy Civil War and nautical fans."



Booklist, November 1, 2002, Margaret Flanagan, review of Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire, p. 470; December 1, 2005, George Cohen, review of Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah, p. 16.

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; December 15, 2005, review of Sea of Gray, p. 1307.

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

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; October 17, 2005, review of Sea of Gray, p. 47.

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

State (Columbia, SC), February 28, 2003, William W. Starr, review of Pathfinder.

Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, fall, 2006, Robert Gudmestad, review of Sea of Gray, p. 111.

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


Emory University Report Online, Report/ (February 1, 2007), Stacey Jones, review of Fatal Glory.

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Chaffin, Tom 1952- (J. Thomas Chaffin)

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