Abraham Lincoln Brigade
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was made up of volunteers from all walks of American life, and from all classes. Many of the people who volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were official members of the Communist Party USA or affiliated with other socialist or anarchist organizations, such as the Uruguayan Hugo Fern¡ndez Artucio. Members of the Industrial Workers of the World ("Wobblies") were also represented. It is sometimes thought to be the first American military unit to be commanded by a black officer, Oliver Law.
American volunteers began organizing and arriving in Spain in 1936. Centered in the town of Figueres, near the border with France, the brigade was organized in 1937 and trained by Robert Hale Merriman. The Lincolns suffered from poor training and inept leaders, including both Merriman and Law, who were selected for command primarily for political reasons. The battalion only had one capable commander, Steve Nelson, who took command too late to turn it into a truly effective combat unit.
By early 1937, its numbers had swelled from an initial 96 volunteers to around 450 members. In February 1937, the European powers comprising the League of Nations Non-Intervention Committee banned foreign national volunteers.
In 1939, under the administration of United States Attorney General Frank Murphy, who was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States Department of Justice in Detroit indicted 16 alleged Communists and fellow travelers for having recruited volunteers for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade supporting Spanish Republican forces against Franco and the Nationalists. This earned Murphy censure from liberals.
The International Brigade took part in several battles in Spain. They unsuccessfully defended the supply road between Valencia and Madrid in the Jarama Valley from February 1937 until June 1937. They were also present at the battles of Brunete, Zaragoza, Belchite, Teruel, and Ebro River.
The Brigade was a cause clbre in some liberal and socialist circles in the United States. Some groups organized fundraising activities and supply drives to keep the brigade afloat. News of the brigade's high casualty rate and bravery in battle made them heroic figures to Americans opposing the rise of fascism. Paul Robeson was one high profile supporter, even going so far as to visit the Lincolns in the field in Spain and appearing in publicity photographs (the XV International Brigade had its own photographic unit).
The war dragged on and the Nationalist forces, supported by Nazi Germany under Hitler and Fascist Italy under Mussolini, gained victory after victory over the Republic, which was increasingly dominated by the Spanish Communist Party (PCE). The International Brigade was withdrawn from battle by the Spanish prime minister Juan Negrn in the spring of 1938. Most of the surviving Lincolns were repatriated promptly afterwards.
Of the more than 3,000 who fought in the battalion during the conflict, over one-third were killed.
During and after the Spanish Civil War, members of the brigade were viewed as supporters of the Soviet Union. The Hitler-Stalin pact caused a division among the Lincoln Brigade veterans. Some of them, taking the official Communist line of taking the war in Europe as "an imperialist war", joined with the American Peace Mobilization in protesting U.S. support for Britain against Nazi Germany. Others, however, persisted with the anti-Fascist line which they had followed to Spain. In particular, the former Lincoln Brigade commander Milton Wolff volunteered in 1940 for the British Special Operations Executive, and arranged arms for the European resistance organizations.
During and following World War II, particularly at the height of the Second Red Scare, the U.S. government considered former members of the brigade to be security risks. In fact, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover persuaded President Roosevelt to ensure that former ALB members fighting in U.S. Forces in World War II not be considered for commissioning as officers, or to have any type of positive distinction conferred upon them.
The name Brigade is a misnomer. In the Spanish Civil War, a brigade consisted of four to six battalions. American volunteers mostly joined the two battalions (the Lincoln Battalion and the Washington Battalion) within XV International Brigade. The XV International Brigade was made up of six battalions of volunteers from nations around the globe, topped up with Spanish conscripts. Irish volunteers formed the Connolly Column of the battalion under the command of Frank Ryan. The column joined the American rather than the British battalion on nationalist grounds.
Members of the XV International Brigade adapted a song by Alex McDade to reflect the losses at the Battle of Jarama. Sung to the tune of the traditional country song Red River Valley, it became their anthem.
In 2007, Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War at the Museum of the City of New York examines the role that New Yorkers played in the conflict, as well as the political and social ideologies that motivated them to participate in activities ranging from rallying support, fundraising, and relief aid, to fighting – and sometimes dying – on the front lines in Spain. The stories of these New Yorkers will be told through photographs, letters, uniforms, weapons, and an array of personal and historical memorabilia.
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