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Abraham Lincoln Battalion
The Abraham Lincoln Battalion consisted of volunteers wanting to fight for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War. The first volunteers sailed from New York City on 25th December, 1936 and joined the other International Brigades at Albacete.
An estimated 3,000 men fought in the battalion. Of these, over 1,000 were industrial workers (miners, steel workers, longshoremen). Another 500 were students or teachers. Around 30 per cent were Jewish and 70 per cent were between 21 and 28 years of age. The majority were members of the American Communist Party whereas others came from the Socialist Party of America and Socialist Labor Party.
Robert Merriman, who had spent two years in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the University of Nevada, was recruited to train the recently arrived volunteers from America. Working under James Harris, a former sergeant in the United States Army, Merriman taught the men how to fieldstrip rifles and machine-guns. He also organized a series of lectures on scouting, fortifications and signaling.
After failing to take Madrid by frontal assault General Francisco Franco gave orders for the road that linked the city to the rest of Republican Spain to be cut. A Nationalist force of 40,000 men, including men from the Army of Africa, crossed the Jarama River on 11th February, 1937.
General José Miaja sent the Abraham Lincoln Battalion to the Jarama Valley to block the advance. Led by Robert Merriman, the 373 members of the brigade moved into the trenches on 23rd February. When the were ordered over the top they were backed by a pair of tanks from the Soviet Union. On the first day 20 men were killed and nearly 60 were wounded.
On 27th February 1937, Colonel Vladimir Copic, the Yugoslav commander of the Fifteenth Brigade, ordered Merriman and his men to attack the Nationalist forces at Jarama. As soon as he left the trenches Merrimen was shot in the shoulder, cracking the bone in five places. Of the 263 men who went into action that day, only 150 survived. One soldier remarked afterwards: "The battalion was named after Abraham Lincoln because he, too, was assassinated."
International Brigades suffered heavy casualties at Jarma. When Merriman was wounded in the left shoulder, he was replaced by Oliver Law as battalion commander. It was the first time in American history that an integrated military force was led by an African-American officer.
Steve Nelson, Harry Haywood and Joe Dallet arrived at Albacete in May 1937. The three men became political commissars and were instructed to restore battalion morale. Nelson later explained how he tried to do this "The men must learn the basis of the whole struggle - the fundamentals of the whole war. You must be one of the boys, concern yourself directly with their problems. I trusted the men and they trusted me."
In July 1937 the Abraham Lincoln Battalion fought alongside the George Washington Battalion at Brunete. Oliver Law was one of those killed and Steve Nelson now took over as commander of the battalion. Casualties were so high at Brunete that on 14th July the two units were merged. Mirko Markovicz, a Yugoslav-American, was appointed as commander of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion and Nelson became his political commissar.
Soon afterwards, Markovicz was ordered by Colonel Klaus of the International Brigades to move his men to protect a company of Spanish marines. Markovicz refused, explaining: "I will not order the American battalion to carry out this order because it will result in a disaster, like the one in Jarama." Markovicz was arrested and Nelson became the new commander. The next morning the order was cancelled and Markovicz was released.
In August 1937 the American forces were reorganized. Steve Nelson was promoted to brigade commissar and Robert Merriman became brigade chief of staff. Hans Amlie, who had now recovered from the wounds suffered at Brunete, became commander of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion.
The next major action involving the Lincoln-Washington Battalion took place during the Aragón offensive at the end of August 1937. The campaign began with an attack on the town of Quinto. This involved dangerous street fighting against snipers that were within the walls of the local church. After two days the Americans were able to clear the town of Nationalist forces. This included the capture of nearly a thousand prisoners.
The Lincoln-Washington Battalion then headed towards the fortified town of Belchite. Once again the Americans had to endure sniper fire. Robert Merriman ordered the men to take the church. In the first assault involving 22 men, only two survived. When Merriman ordered a second attack, Hans Amlie at first refused saying the task of taking the church was impossible. He help Amlie, Steve Nelson led a diversionary attack. This enabled the Lincoln-Washington Battalion to enter the town. The Americans suffered heavy casualties, Nelson and Amlie received head wounds and amongst the dead were Wallace Burton, Henry Eaton and Samuel Levinger.
In March 1938 the Lincoln-Washington Battalion lost two of its most senior officers, Robert Merriman and David Doran, when they were killed at Gandesa on the Aragón front. Milton Wolff now assumed command of the battalion and John Gates became battalion commissar.
The following month the Nationalist Army broke through the Republican defences and reached the sea. General Francisco Franco now moved his troops towards Valencia with the objective of encircling Madrid and the central front.
Juan Negrin, in an attempt to relieve the pressure on the Spanish capital, ordered an attack across the fast-flowing Ebro River. General Juan Modesto, a member of the Communist Party (PCE), was placed in charge of the offensive. Over 80,000 Republican troops, including the 15th International Brigade and the British Battalion, began crossing the river in boats on 25th July. The men then moved forward towards Corbera and Gandesa.
On 26th July the Republican Army attempted to capture Hill 481, a key position at Gandesa. Hill 481 was well protected with barbed wire, trenches and bunkers. The Republicans suffered heavy casualties and after six days was forced to retreat to Hill 666 on the Sierra Pandols. It successfully defended the hill from a Nationalist offensive in September but once again large numbers were killed.
On 23rd September, Juan Negrin, head of the Republican government, announced at the League of Nations in Geneva that the International Brigades would be unilaterally withdrawn from Spain. That night the 15th Brigade and the British Battalion moved back across the River Ebro and began their journey out of the country.
By the end of the Spanish Civil War there were only 150 American soldiers left in the Lincoln-Washington Battalion. Over the course of the war over one-third of the volunteers from the United States had been killed. The journalist, Vincent Sheean, wrote at the time: "If the world has a future, they have preserved it."
(1) Bill Bailey wrote to his mother explaining why he was fighting in the Spanish Civil War (1937)
You see Mom, there are things that one must do in this life that are a little more than just living. In Spain there are thousands of mothers like yourself who never had a fair shake in life. They got together and elected a government that really gave meaning to their life. But a bunch of bullies decided to crush this wonderful thing. That's why I went to Spain, Mom, to help these poor people win this battle, then one day it would be easier for you and the mothers of the future. Don't let anyone mislead you by telling you that all this had something to do with Communism. The Hitlers and Mussolinis of this world are killing Spanish people who don't know the difference between Communism and rheumatism. And it's not to set up some Communist government either. The only thing the Communists did here was show the people how to fight and try to win what is rightfully theirs.
(2) Manchester Guardian (5th April 1937)
Twenty-nine Americans who are alleged to have tried to cross the French frontier into Spain to enlist with the Spanish Government forces were detained last night at Muret between Toulouse and the Spanish frontier. The Americans had landed at Havre maintaining, it is stated, that they were genuine tourists. They have been brought to Toulouse for questioning.
(3) Canute Frankson, member of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, letter from Albacete (6th July, 1937)
I'm sure that by this time you are still waiting for a detailed explanation of what has this international struggle to do with my being here. Since this is a war between whites who for centuries have held us in slavery, and have heaped every kind of insult and abuse upon us, segregated and Jim-Crowed us; why I, a Negro who have fought through these years for the rights of my people, am here in Spain today?
Because we are no longer an isolated minority group fighting hopelessly against an immense giant. Because, my dear, we have joined with, and become an active part of, a great progressive force, on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of saving human civilization from the planned destruction of a small group of degenerates gone mad in their lust for power. Because if we crush Fascism here we'll save our people in America, and in other parts of the world from the vicious persecution, wholesale imprisonment, and slaughter which the Jewish people suffered and are suffering under Hitler's Fascist heels.
All we have to do is to think of the lynching of our people. We can but look back at the pages of American history stained with the blood of Negroes; stink with the burning bodies of our people hanging from trees; bitter with the groans of our tortured loved ones from whose living bodies ears, fingers, toes have been cut for souvenirs - living bodies into which red-hot pokers have been thrust. All because of a hate created in the minds of men and women by their masters who keep us all under their heels while they suck our blood, while they live in their bed of ease by exploiting us.
(4) Robert Merriman diary entry (28th February 1937)
Boys had little to eat and drink, and it meant death to carry food across the road. We waited without promised machine gun support, without telephone, artillery going to the left and not helping us. The armored cars were behind the hill, no tank in evidence, no horses, no planes.
(5) Jack Freeman, member of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, letter (29th June, 1938)
Last winter we had the coldest winter in about twenty years and now it seems, we're headed for the hottest summer in a long time. From eleven in the morning to 3 or 4 in the afternoon it is simply physically impossible to do anything. The slightest motion brings oceans of thick, stinking sweat rolling down your body. The civilians sleep their famous siesta, but for us, living in trenches or in open fields, even this is almost impossible. For along with the hot weather came the flies. Not flies like the delicate, frightened creatures we have in the states. Oh, no. Big, heavy, tough, persistent things that you can't shoo away. They swarm in thick clouds over every square inch of your body that's exposed, buzzing ferociously, creeping across your skin so heavily you can feel each individual footstep, biting so that you almost forget the lice. And when you swing at them, they don't scatter like properly civilized American flies. They merely fly off two or three inches and are back on you before your hand is at rest. If you lie uncovered they torment you to distraction and if you put even the most sheer piece of material over you, you drown in your own sweat. And the lice, thriving on the rich sweat, grow fat & bloated like well-fed pigs and dig fortifications in your skin.
(6) Salaria Kea was a memner of the American Medical Unit that established a field hospital at Villa Paz near Madrid. She wrote about her experiences in Health and Medicine (Spring, 1987)
The Second American Medical Unit, authorized by the Republican Government of Spain, at once turned the cows out of Villa Paz, cleaned the building and set up the first American base hospital in Spain.
The beds of Villa Paz were soon filled with soldiers of every degree of injury and ailment, every known race and tongue from every corner of the earth. These divisions of race, creed and nationality lost significance when they met in a united effort to make Spain the tomb of Fascism. I saw my fate, the fate of the Negro race, was inseparably tied up with their fate: the efforts of the Negroes must be allied with those of others as the only insurance against an uncertain future.
The Negro men who fought for Loyalist Spain never tire of telling how they celebrated when they got news that the Second American Medical Unit included a Negro nurse. Their battalion had been in the trenches 120 days of continuous fighting. I am told that during the entire First World War a fighting unit was never required to be under fire longer than this. Their clothing was shabby and worn. Many had so little to wear they could not appear in public.
I was so excited over going to Spain I did not realize that many other Negroes had already recognized Spain's fight for freedom and liberty as a part of our struggle too. I didn't know that almost a hundred young Negro men were already fighting Hitler's and Mussolini's forces there in Spain.
(7) Steve Nelson, Steve Nelson: American Radical (1981)
Our purpose throughout three years of civil war was not to set up some sort of workers' republic, be it socialist, anarchist, or what have you. There was clearly a progressive content to the political program of the Popular Front that would have extended civil liberties, strengthened the bargaining power of workers and spurred land reform. And there were openly revolutionary currents within it. Yet the goal of the Popular Front was not a socialist republic.
(8) Robert Merriman wrote about the offensive at Jarama Valley to his friend Martin Hourihan (1st March 1937)
Our men advanced under impossible conditions and did it without murmur. Our boys plenty brave. Great boys and it grieved me to see them go.
(9) Edwin Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion (1939)
Jarama was a complete success, in a way which none of the Americans who took part in it could then foresee. For the attack on February 27th impressed the insurgents with one inescapable fact: that the Jarama front was too heavily, too perfectly defended. From that day until the very end of the war, the rebels never succeeded in advancing another meter along the line which, they had hoped, would cut the Madrid-Valencia highway, effect the encirclement and the capture of Madrid.
(10) Oliver Law, interviewed by a reporter after the offensive at Jarama River (February, 1937)
We came to wipe out the fascists. Some of us must die doing that job. But we'll do it here in Spain, maybe stopping fascism in the United States, too, without a great battle there.
(11) Alvah Bessie, Men in Battle (1939)
I wanted to work (for the first time) in a large body of men, to submerge myself in the mass, seeking neither distinction nor preferment - the obverse of my activities the past several years - and in this way to achieve: self-discipline, patience and resignation, unselfishness. In fine, to complete the destruction of my early training in order to build again a life that would be geared to other men and the world-events that circumscribed their lives.
(12) Paul White deserted from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in March 1938. He drove to the French border. However, on hearing that his wife had given birth to a son, he began to feel remorse for what he had done. White wanted his son to be proud of his father and he returned to the front where he made a full confession of his actions. White was court-martialled and became the only American to be executed for desertion in the war.
After Belchite I knew I was afraid to go into action again. I tried all this time to overcome my feeling of fear. I felt we were doomed and fighting futilely. I dropped out of line and made up my mind to desert and try and reach France. As I ran towards the Ebro and met more deserters and routed troops, my fear grew. If I succeeded in getting to France, I still would have to face everyone at home but I had lost all control.
I kept going and debating whether or not to turn back. I spoke to the mayor at the border town in which I was arrested and asked where the command post was located. He told me and I decided to eat and make a final decision. I was arrested before I had done this. Once I was in custody I decided that I had been saved from wrecking my life completely.
I realize that "safety" of the kind I was seeking would never compensate me for the loss of everything and everyone I value. I ask for one chance and that is to serve in the lines and wipe out this stain on my military and Party record.
I am 29 years old and am certain that I can serve in the ranks for many years as a class conscious worker. I have had plenty of time to think before making this statement and sincerely believe I will be stronger in my work and devotion if given the opportunity to redeem myself. I regard my position now as the most serious crisis in my life and am ready to meet it.
(13) In 1938 the Medical Bureau and North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy in New York published Salaria Kea: A Negro Nurse in Republican Spain.
The hospital beds were soon filled with soldiers of every degree of injury and ailment, of almost every known race and tongue and from every corner of the earth. Czechs from Prague, and from Bohemian villages, Hungarians, French, Finns. Peoples from democratic countries who recognized Italy and Germany's invasion in Spain as a threat to the peace and security of all small countries. Germans and Italians, exiled or escaped from concentration camps and fighting for their freedom here on Spain's battle line. Ethiopians from Djibouti, seeking to recoup Ethiopia's freedom by strangling Mussolini's forces here in Spain. Cubans, Mexicans, Russians, Japanese, unsympathetic with Japan's invasion of China and the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis. There were poor whites and Negroes from the Southern States of the United States. These divisions of race and creed and religion and nationality lost significance when they met in Spain in a united effort to make Spain the tomb of fascism. The outcome of the struggle in Spain implies the death or the realization of the hopes of the minorities of the world.
Salaria saw that her fate, the fate of the Negro Race, was inseparably tied up with their fate; that the Negro's efforts must be allied with those of other minorities as the only insurance against an uncertain future. And in Spain she worked with freedom. Her services were recognized. For the first time she worked free of racial discrimination or limitations.
There were not too many skilled hands to make the wounded comfortable. Everybody's services were conscripted. Nurses taught carpenters to make hospital supplies - shock blocks, back rests, Balkan frames for fractured arms, Fire and fuel they needed desperately.
(14) Edwin Rolfe, New Masses (13th September, 1938)
The war has ripped all illusions from even the youngest of the volunteers, leaving only the reality. That reality is harder than anyone who has never been under machine-gun fire and bombs and artillery fire can ever know. Yet the men of the Lincoln brigade, knowing it well, chose and continue to choose to fight for Spain's free existence. To be true to themselves and their innermost convictions.
(15) Bill Bailey was a member of the International Brigades parade in Barcelona on 15th November 1938.
Everyone who was able to walk was in the parade and the street was lined with people, throwing flowers, running out to hug and kiss us, tears in their eyes. It was sad to leave all these wonderful Spaniards at Franco's mercy. The last words spoken to us were that we should continue the anti-fascist struggle wherever we might be. And we did that to the best of our ability.
(16) John Gates, The Story of an American Communist (1959)
The most exciting visit was to the 15th International Brigade - the Americans liked to call it the Lincoln Brigade although this did not set well, of course, with the many other nationalities in it. The Brigade was made up of four battalions, an American whose real name was the Lincoln Battalion, and a British, a Canadian and a Spanish battalion. Attached to the Brigade staff were an anti-tank battery, a special machine-gun company and an observation company. Commander of the Brigade was Col. Copic, a Yugoslav who had been a member of the Yugoslav parliament. Chief of staff was Major Robert Merriman, who had taught economics at the University of California. Dave Doran, Young Communist League leader from Pittsburgh, was commissar.
At full strength, the Brigade numbered some 3,000 men, about half of them American. The Brigade had been through many battles and suffered many casualties, fighting at Jarama and Brunete near Madrid, and at Quinto and Belchite in the Aragon. The name of Abraham Lincoln had been taken by the American battalion because of the parallel between the Spanish war, started by a pro-fascist revolt, and our own Civil War, instigated by a pro-slavery insurrection. The battalion banner bore the inscription "So that Liberty Shall Not Perish from the Earth," and its members bestowed nothing but honor on these words.
(17) After the war Ernest Hemingway wrote about the role of the International Brigades.
The dead sleep cold in Spain tonight. Snow blows through the olive groves, sifting against the tree roots. Snow drifts over the mounds with small headboards. For our dead are a part of the earth of Spain now and the earth of Spain can never die. Each winter it will seem to die and each spring it will come alive again. Our dead will live with it forever.
Over 40,000 volunteers from 52 countries flocked to Spain between 1936 and 1939 to take part in the historic struggle between democracy and fascism known as the Spanish Civil War.
Five brigades of international volunteers fought on behalf of the democratically elected Republican (or Loyalist) government. Most of the North American volunteers served in the unit known as the 15th brigade, which included the Abraham Lincoln battalion, the George Washington battalion and the (largely Canadian) Mackenzie-Papineau battalion. All told, about 2,800 Americans, 1,250 Canadians and 800 Cubans served in the International Brigades. Over 80 of the U.S. volunteers were African-American. In fact, the Lincoln Battalion was headed by Oliver Law, an African-American from Chicago, until he died in battle.
(18) J. Edgar Hoover, A Study of Communism (1962)
One of the first opportunities to exploit political and social upheaval abroad arose in Spain. When a civil war broke out in that country in 1936, the Communists acted in line with the theory that the Soviet Union should be used as the base for the extension of Communist control over other countries. Soviet intervention in the Spanish civil war was twofold in nature. First, in response to directions from the Comintern, the international Communist movement organized International Brigades to fight in Spain. A typical unit was the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, organized in the United States. It succeeded in recruiting about 3,000 men. In all, the Communist parties of 53 countries were represented in the International Brigades with a total fighting strength of approximately 18,000, the first of whom arrived in Spain during the latter part of 1936. Second, the Soviet Union furnished direct military assistance in the form of tanks, artillery, and aircraft flown by Soviet pilots. For two years, Moscow pursued its objectives in the Spanish struggle. However, Soviet intervention ended in the fall of 1938, when the national interest of the Soviet Union forced it to turn its attention elsewhere. In Europe, Hitler's strength was steadily increasing. In addition, Japan's armed invasion of Manchuria posed a direct threat to Soviet territory in the Far East. At the end of 1938, the International Brigades withdrew from Spain. Many Communists throughout the world who answered the Comintern's call to fight in Spain were repaid subsequently by Soviet assistance in their attempts to seize power in their respective countries. Among those identified with Communist efforts in connection with the Spanish civil war who subsequently gained prominence in the Communist movement were Tito (Yugoslavia), Palmiro Togliatti (Italy), Jacques Duclos (France), Klement Gottwald (Czechoslovakia), Erno Gero and Laszlo Rajk (Hungary), and Walter Ulbricht (East Germany).
(19) Milton Wolff, interviewed by Judy Montell in 1991.
Spain was only one battle. World War II was only one battle, what's going on in Central America, South Africa, the Middle East now is another battle, and we're into these things. Struggle is the elixir of life, the tonic of life. I mean, if you're not struggling, your dead.
(20) Alvah Bessie, The Spanish Civil War (1975)
We used to say that if we survived the war we would get home just in time to fight in a bigger one. World War II started five months after Madrid was betrayed-and occupied. A new organization called The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) attempted to enlist en masse the Monday after Pearl Harbor. Our offer was refused but of the 1,500 who returned (200 did not because they were aliens), at least 1,200 served in World War II, either in the armed forces or the merchant marine.
In a few months, some who had voted for the resolution had second thoughts. The Spanish "civil war," they feared, was being used by Hitler and Mussolini as a testing ground for the great war that lay ahead. Tens of thousands of Italian soldiers fought for Franco, and the Fascist press celebrated the fall of Malaga as a national victory. The Nazis made no attempt to disguise the airplanes that bombed Bilbao. A number of isolationist progressives came to believe the threat to democratic government more compelling than the doctrines of neutrality. Senator Nye, to the discomfiture of the pacifists, introduced a resolution to repeal the embargo on arms to the Loyalists. Both Secretaries Ickes and Morgenthau supported Nye, and fifteen prominent scientists, including Arthur Compton and Harold Urey, pleaded with the President to lift the embargo to "save the world from a fascist gulf." In January, 1938, sixty members of Congress ostentatiously sent greetings to the Spanish Cortes. For many American intellectuals, the Spanish war was the crucial event of the decade, for it signified an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of democracy and fascism. Placards on college bulletin boards announced: "We dance that Spain may live." A few did more than that. Two or three thousand American volunteers fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and other Loyalist units; most who went died there, including Ring Lardner's son James, who lost his life in the Ebro campaign."
For a brief time in the spring of 1938, it appeared that Roosevelt would lift the embargo, but the American ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy, warned him that such a move might spread the Spanish war to the rest of the world. Hull insisted that such action would destroy the work of the Nonintervention Committee. The President also had to reckon with the state of American opinion. Most of the country was indifferent; one poll found the remarkably high figure of 66 per cent of respondents neutral or with no opinion. Pro-Loyalist intellectuals were a negligible political force compared to the large bloc of pro-Franco Catholics. Although Catholic laymen like Kathleen Norris and George Schuster were anti-Franco, and most Catholics did not regard themselves as Franco supporters, the Catholic press and hierarchy were almost uniformly pro-Franco, and polls revealed that the proportion of Catholics who backed Franco was more than four times as great as the proportion of Protestants."
Ickes has recorded that Roosevelt told him that to raise the embargo "would mean the loss of every Catholic vote next fall and that the Democratic Members of Congress were jittery about it and didn't want it done." So the cat was out of the bag, Ickes complained, the "mangiest, scabbiest cat ever."
Although it has been argued that the neutrality laws handcuffed Roosevelt in his efforts to check the aggressors, Congress can scarcely be assigned sole responsibility for American policy toward Spain. Ironically, it was Senator Nye, the symbol of congressional isolationism, who led the move to lift the embargo, while Roosevelt, who had originally opposed such legislation, upheld it. The President's Spanish policy had unfortunate consequences. It helped sustain Neville Chamberlain's disastrous policy of appeasement which permitted Germany and Italy to supply Franco while the democracies enforced "nonintervention" against themselves. "My own impression," wrote Ambassador Claude Bowers in July, 1937, "is that with every surrender beginning long ago with China, followed by Abyssinia and then Spain, the fascist powers, with vanity inflamed, will turn without delay to some other country such as Czechoslovakia-and that with every surrender the prospects of a European war grow darker."