Naming the Lincoln Battalion

March 13, 2016
By and

Why did the American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War name themselves after Abraham Lincoln? Who first came up with the idea of the “Lincoln Battalion” and when? New information is complicating the long-accepted account.

Cuban volunteers belonging to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Barcelona, January 1937. Photo Agustí Centelles.

Cuban volunteers belonging to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Barcelona, January 1937. Photo Agustí Centelles.

It was a beautiful story, beautifully told. It’s January 23, 1937, about a week after the first shipment of volunteers from the United States marched through Barcelona. The Fifteenth International Brigade is in the process of being formed; its official creation will be on January 31. The 400 or so U.S. volunteers who are by now in Spain gather to collectively choose the name of their unit. Alfred Tanz, speaking with historian Peter N. Carroll, said he recalled “a long discussion in which the men proposed various designations.” The machine gunners suggested the name of labor leader Tom Mooney, but, Carroll writes, “a larger consensus preferred the American symbols of the Popular Front.” A vote was taken. Commander Robert Merriman wrote in his diary that day: “Long Live the Lincoln Battalion!”

Merriman wrote in his diary that day: “Long Live the Lincoln Battalion!”

Merriman’s Diary, January 23, 1937

Merriman’s Diary, January 23, 1937

Recent investigations, however, suggest a different sequence of events. A first complication arose when, in early 2010, James Fernández and Sebastiaan Faber went in search of the elusive identity of a black volunteer photographed by the Catalan cameraman Agustí Centelles. They proved that the portrait had been taken on January 17, 1937, in Barcelona, when a contingent of newly arrived international volunteers marched through the city on their way to Albacete, where the headquarters of the International Brigades had been established. The volunteer, who turned out to be a Cuban exile in the United States, appeared in other photos from that day holding a banner that read: “1er BATALLÓN AMERICANO / A. LINCOLN / CENTURIA ANTONIO GUITERAS / BRIGADA INTERNACIONAL.” Further research indicated that the group of Cuban exiles from New York had formed their own unit of about a hundred soldiers, named after the Cuban politician and revolutionary Antonio Guiteras (1906-1935). More surprising was the fact that the entire U.S. battalion already appeared to have been named as well. Apparently there had even been time enough to sew several large cloth banners. Other photographs from the same day show American volunteers carrying a second banner, simply reading “1er BATALLÓN AMERICANO / ABRAHAM LINCOLN / BRIGADA INTERNACIONAL.”

How did the Lincoln Battalion come about? As Peter Carroll points out, the frequently-used term “Lincoln Brigade” is, strictly speaking, a misnomer. The U.S. volunteers fought in the Fifteenth International Brigade, which was formed in late January 1937 and included a British, a French-Belgian, and a Spanish battalion. Moreover, not all the Americans served in the Lincoln Battalion per se; others belonged, at different moments, to the Washington Battalion, the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion, the transport section (Regiment de Tren), or the John Brown artillery battery, as well as various medical groups.

Yet regardless of these technical details, the question remains when and how it was decided to link the fight in Spain with the towering historical figure of President Abraham Lincoln. Was it a collective, democratic decision, as Tanz suggested, or did it come down from the political or military leadership? Was it made after the volunteers arrived in Spain, as Merriman’s diary entry seems to indicate, or before they even left the United States? And who first came up with the idea?

Dr. Rafael Méndez Martínez

Dr. Rafael Méndez Martínez

If the photos taken on January 17, 1937 introduced a first complication, further questions are raised by a second source, Dr. Rafael Méndez (1906-1991), a Spanish physician, member of the Socialist Party, and close confidant of Dr. Juan Negrín. (Negrín served in the Spanish Republican government during the war, first as Minister of Finance and later as Prime-Minister.) In his memoirs, published in Mexico in 1987, Dr. Méndez recalls an important trip to the United States in October 1936, in the company of Luis Prieto, son of the Socialist leader Indalecio Prieto. They were on a mission: Negrín had sent them to buy war material—mainly aircraft—in the United States. This was still an option at that time. During the first months of the war, the U.S. embargo regarding Spain was political or “moral” (as President Franklin D. Roosevelt used that term against Italy when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia the previous year. It was not “legal” as it would be from January 1937 onwards. Still, Méndez and Prieto could carry out their mission only after convincing Wall Street bankers of the validity of the large checks they carried, from a Government in war and with an uncertain future.

A secret meeting was arranged through a mysterious man in a bowler hat who went by the name of Patterson.

At one point during this special U.S. mission, a secret meeting was arranged between Méndez and Earl Browder, head of the Communist Party of the United States, through a mysterious man in a bowler hat who went by the name of Patterson. Méndez was a bit surprised at the level of secrecy involved—they took a cab, a subway, and another cab to shake off anyone possibly following them—but he took an immediate liking to Browder. At their meeting, Browder announced the formation of a Communist corps of U.S. volunteers that would be sent to Spain to support the Republic. They also discussed what to name this group. Here is Méndez:

Browder struck me as a modest and simple man. … He put the main issue of our meeting on the table. They were recruiting men to fight in Spain. A brigade would be formed, which did not have a name yet, and then and there we decided that it should be called the Lincoln Brigade. He wanted to be able to rely on me in case he needed financial help. I granted him that help, whenever it was necessary, through Mr. Patterson as intermediary, and never saw Earl Browder again.

Was it really Méndez and Browder who came up with the Lincoln name, months before the first volunteers left New York? The scenario is in fact quite probable. To understand why, we need to broaden our lens a bit and look at the historical context.

By 1936, Earl Browder, who served as General Secretary of the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA) from 1932 to 1945, supported New Deal coalition. At its Congress in the summer of 1935, the Communist International (Comintern) had approved the formation of “Popular Fronts” to build a broad progressive alliance against fascism. This decision was a stunning about-face following years of sectarian struggles within the left. For Browder, it cleared the way to pursue broad alliances during the years of the FDR administration, drawing the CPUSA out of its isolated niche on the radical left. Comintern leader Gyorgy Dimitrov had also emphasized the need for the left to counter the fascists’ extreme nationalism with an alternative appeal to patriotic pride. In the United States, this encouraged the CPUSA not only to wrap itself in the American flag, but to mine the country’s history in search of symbols of progressivism.

The outbreak of the war in Spain a year later put the Popular Front-New Deal connection in an even clearer perspective. Republican Spain, after all, could be seen as something of a Spanish version of the Roosevelt Administration. (In that summer of 1936, neither the small Communist Party nor the much larger Socialist Party were part of the Spanish Republican Government.) And now that democratically elected government was being attacked by fascism.

The military rebels received immediate support from Berlin, Rome, and Lisbon, while the European democracies (the most natural allies of the Spanish Republic), signed a non-intervention pact. This led Stalin’s Soviet Union in September to help the Spanish government by selling war material to Spain as well as sending technicians and military advisors. At the same time, Stalin approved the recruitment of an international force of volunteers, an effort to be organized through French Communist Party. The first volunteers began arriving in Spain in that month.

Stalin had three reasons to support Spain’s lonely democratic government. First, he wanted to send a clear message to the Fascist powers that he wouldn’t stand by idly while they attacked other sovereign states. Second, he wanted to display his sincerity in pursuing international alliances with democratic governments to form the kind of antifascist block proposed at the Comintern Congress in 1935. Last but not least, he wanted to show the world (and especially the enthusiasts of Communism around the globe) that Moscow, motherland of the working-class, would not spare efforts to defend its comrades. Browder’s plan to organize a battalion of American volunteers was born in this context. The U.S. volunteers first came into action in January 1937, three months after the first international brigaders had arrived in Spain.

Why would Browder and Méndez land on the name of Lincoln? One plausible reason has to do with image politics. Browder and Méndez thought it wise to underplay the Communist role in the international defense of the Spanish Republic. They did not want to scare London, Paris and Washington even more, and hoped to ease tensions with U.S. anti-Communists. (The treatment of the Lincoln veterans during World War II and the Cold War makes clear that this effort failed.)

Patricio Azcárate, who helped organize the withdrawal of the International Brigades from Spain starting in October 1938, agrees with this explanation. Born in London in 1920, Azcárate is the son of Pablo de Azcárate, the Spanish Republican ambassador in London during the war. After taking part in the Battle of the Ebro, 18-year-old Patricio was assigned to work with the League of Nations commission to help coordinate the IBs’ withdrawal. The Lincoln Battalion, he tells us, was one of a whole series of Popular Front-inspired names. In addition to the Washington Battalion, for example, the British Battalion had an Attlee Company, named after the Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, even though it was mainly composed of Communists.

One of the reasons the leaders chose the name Abraham Lincoln,” adds Peter Carroll, “was to make a connection between the war in Spain and the U.S, Civil War. Lincoln was the elected president of the legal government, entitled to international support, as opposed to the rebels (the Confederates and Franco) who violated constitutional procedures.” The parallel struck a chord with the American public. “Several writers made the connection between battles in the U.S. Civil War and battles in Spain,” Carroll says. “Hemingway mentioned Gettysburg, and at the end of the Spanish Civil War he compared the returning soldiers to the men who returned after Appomattox. The difference was—he predicted, correctly—that the Americans in Spain were coming home to a second world war.

“During the 1930s,” Carroll points out, “there was a cult of Lincoln in the USA, spawning many popular books and movies. Most Americans understood that Lincoln had freed the slaves. And supporters of the Spanish Republic saw a parallel to freeing the Spanish Republic from Francoist enslavement. Interestingly, U.S. supporters of Franco did not refer to the U.S. Civil War, although they did occasionally talk of Franco as analogous to Washington, father of his country.”

Was it Méndez or Browder who first suggested naming the American contingent of volunteers in Spain after the 16th U.S. President? Most likely it was Browder. Still, if Méndez consulted with his superior, Negrín, the Spanish minister no doubt agreed with the decision. A moderate Socialist with an uncommonly cosmopolitan outlook for those times, Negrín’s international policy as Prime Minister of the Republic focused, precisely, on securing the support of the democratic powers. He was convinced that the Western democracies would realize sooner or later that Spain was fighting the first battle of a world war against fascism—and that, as soon as they did, they would have no choice but to rush to the Republic’s side. Negrín was right, but the realization came too late. Franco declared victory on April 1, 1939. Five months later, Hitler invaded Poland.

David Jorge is a post-doctoral researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and lead editor of H-Spain.
Sebastiaan Faber teaches at Oberlin College.