The Abraham Lincoln Battalion (ALB) living history collective was formed in early 2018 by several West coasters who were interested in the Spanish Civil War — along with associates of the Frente Rojo Spanish Civil War Reenacting Collective who had relocated from the East coast. Since then, it has expanded and solidified as a unit portraying the 17th (and later the 58th) Battalion of the XV International Brigade — known colloquially as the Abraham Lincoln Battalion/Brigade. In January 2020, we affiliated as members of the Historical Unit of Southern California.
The actual ALB consisted of around 3,000 American volunteers who went against their country's laws in order to fight for the Popular Army of the Second Spanish Republic against the uprising of General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist faction between the years of 1936–1939. Between 600–900 American volunteers perished in Spain during Europe's first struggle against fascism. For more history on the ALB, check out the Unit History page.
Our unit strives to accurately represent the Abraham Lincoln Battalion to the best of our abilities. We participate in public living history events, training days, private picket posts, as well as archival and ethnographic research in order to closely recreate the ALB as it was during the Spanish Civil War. We host and participate in events primarily in southern California but we are also committed to making a presence at events on the East coast of the U.S., as well as annual events in Spain.
Furthermore, we are committed to representing the ALB in every stage of the war — from their clandestine voyage on trans-Atlantic ships from New York to Europe, to secretly crossing the Pyrenees Mountains from France into Spain, to the numerous combat actions the unit saw during the war – usually as shock troops – such as in the Battle of Jarama, the offensive at Brunete, the Aragon Offensive, the battles at Quinto and Belchite, the close-quarters combat in the bitter cold of Teruel, the confusion of The Retreats, and the last hurrah of the Ebro Offensive.
If you are interested in joining, head over to our recruitment page.
The Abraham Lincoln Battalion (ALB) was the 17th (and later the 58th) battalion of the XV International Brigade fighting for the Second Spanish Republic against the forces of General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist faction, who had military support from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Around 3,000 American volunteers defied their countries laws of non-intervention and smuggled themselves into Spain in order to “make Madrid the tomb of fascism.” Over 100 American men and women also served with the American Medical Bureau as nurses, doctors, technicians, and ambulance drivers.
The broader International Brigades were organized by the Communist International in 1936 in order to assist the Second Spanish Republic in their fight against Franco’s coup. The International Brigades existed for two years, from 1936–1938. The ALB was organized in January 1937 and lasted until Spanish prime minister Juan Negrín withdrew all International Brigade members in September 1938. That said, some ALB prisoners of war did not arrive back in the United States until as late as September 1939.
The conviction that made volunteering for a war against fascism possible was born from the economic calamity and political turmoil of the United States during the 1930s. The young volunteers (a vast majority of the ALB were under 30 years of age) had experienced the deprivations and injustices of the Great Depression which led them to join the burgeoning student, unemployed, union, and cultural movements that were influenced by many Left organizations, including the Communist Party. Of the 3,000 American volunteers that fought in Spain, between 50–80% were members of, or were sympathetic to, the Communist Party or the Young Communist League. Many more identified with their labor unions or other Left groups. Being members of these organizations exposed the volunteers to internationalist perspectives that galvanized them to pursue conscious, political action and gave rise to their revolutionary enthusiasm. That said, not all combatants were motivated by ideological or political concerns. As Mo Fishman, a veteran of the battalion, recalled in 2006: “Some men were running away from bad marital or love situations, but what united all of us was that we hated fascism.” Anti-fascism, more than any other single factor, is what motivated and united the volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion.
For the 85 African American members of the battalion, Franco’s Nationalists represented a microcosm of the injustices and oppression they faced in the United States. Although the ALB was mostly white, it was the first integrated American military unit in history. It was also the first American fighting unit to have a Black commanding officer, Oliver Law. Franco relied on Fascist Italian troops, who had recently conquered the African nation of Ethiopia, and many Fascist leaders—including Franco—believed they were fighting a war against the “Africanization” of Spain. The Black American poet Langston Hughes wrote in an article for the Baltimore Afro-American: “Give Franco a hood and he would be a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Self-motivated and ideological, the ALB attempted to create an egalitarian “people’s army.” Officers and NCOs were distinguished only by small bars on their berets or jackets and in some cases the soldiers elected their own commanders. Traditional military protocol was often shunned, although not always successfully. The units were organized with a dual structure; each had an officer and a commissar. Although a great deal of overlap existed, the officers generally handled military affairs and tactical decisions and the commissars explained the politics of the war and tended to the volunteer’s needs and morale. After the first ALB volunteers smuggled themselves into Spain over the Pyrenees mountain range in January 1937, units received very little training before going into action at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. Although they had fought bravely and aggressively, the ALB suffered enormous casualties—nearly two-thirds of their strength—including their notable commander Robert Merriman, who was badly wounded after an assault on Nationalist positions. The ALB remained on the frontlines—slowly building their fighting strength back up—until the summer, when they were relieved from the front prior to the offensive at Brunete.
After merging with the short lived George Washington Battalion, another American fighting unit, the ALB went into action at Villanueva de la Cañada, capturing the town on the second day of the Brunete Offensive. The ALB was then deployed against Mosquito Ridge, where they were unable to repel Nationalist troops despite repeated assaults. The ALB Commander Oliver Law was killed during this action.
From August to October of 1937, the ALB fought in many battles during the Aragon Offensive—showing particular valiance during the battles in Quinto and Belchite; although, as shock troops, they sustained heavy casualties. After Belchite’s gruesome house-to-house fighting, the ALB launched attacks at Fuentes de Ebro with the newly formed Canadian MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion (Mac-Paps), however they were repelled and sustained heavy casualties due to a lack of communication with the Spanish tank battalions. After Fuentes, the XV International Brigade, including the ALB, were pulled back to a reserve position for its first period of rest and relaxation since going into combat at Jarama eight months prior.
In late December 1937, the ALB was mustered to participate in the recapture of the town of Teruel. The winter of 1937–1938 was among the coldest on record and many troops suffered frostbite and other ailments caused by low temperatures. The British Battalion and Mac-Paps each lost an entire company attempting to hold the territory. The ALB were pulled off the lines after three weeks of brutal fighting. However, before they could return to reserve positions, they were ordered to attack Nationalist fortifications at Segura de los Baños, which they did successfully. Despite this success, Nationalist forces did not have to transfer any forces away from Teruel and continued to hold the town.
By March 1938, the ALB were in reserve positions in Aragon when they were swept up in the calamity, confusion, and devastation known as The Retreats. Franco’s Nationalist forces punched through Republican lines, driving to the sea and splitting the Spanish Republic in two. The ALB became disbursed and participated in a series of confused battles and retreats in which a majority of the battalion was killed, captured, or missing. Two high ranking American officers, Robert Merriman and Dave Doran, are presumed to have been killed—or captured and then executed—during The Retreats. The execution of all international fighters was standard operating procedure for Nationalist forces during this time. The remnants of the ALB reformed on the far side of the Ebro River, where they were slowly rebuilt from the limited number of international volunteers in reserve or those recovered from hospitals as well as from many young conscripted Spanish troops. After The Retreats, young drafted Spanish troops comprised of the majority of the XV International Brigade, including the ALB.
In July of 1938, the ALB saw its final action of the war during the Ebro Offensive. The battalion re-crossed the Ebro River and rapidly advanced across the territory it had retreated from in March and April. Despite the initial success, the Nationalist forces—thanks in part to Fascist Italian and Nazi German troops, arms, and materiel—quickly rallied and pushed Republican forces back. By September, Spanish prime minister Juan Negrín, in a vain hope that the Nationalists would withdraw their German and Italian troops, agreed to withdraw all Internationals from the country.
While the ALB veterans returned to the United States to much fanfare from Leftist organizations, the government of the United States felt quite differently. The U.S. government considered former members of the battalion to be security risks. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Roosevelt called the veterans “premature anti-fascists”—a moniker the veterans of the ALB took as a badge of honor. The FBI recommended that any ALB veteran who joined the armed forces during World War II be denied all military promotion or positive distinction so as to prevent communists from rising in the military. After World War II, ALB veterans were denied military enlistment and government jobs. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted the names of all veterans of the ALB and nearly every ALB veteran has stories of being surveilled, harassed, labeled as communists, denied housing, and refused passports for decades after the Spanish War.
Despite this persecution, the ALB veterans formed the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (which was placed on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations for decades), which met often until the 1970s. Many ALB veterans stayed in contact with each other until the end of their lives. In 1979, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives was formed to record oral histories and preserve the memory of ALB veterans. The last known surviving member of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, Delmer Berg, died on February 28, 2016 at the age of 100.
–Written by ALB living history collective member Taylor R. Genovese
Further reading about the ALB and the Spanish Civil War.
– Bessie, Alvah. Men in Battle. San Francisco: Chandler and Sharp, 1975.
– Guttman, Alan. The Wound in the Heart: America and the Spanish Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1962.
– Hochschild, Adam. Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.
– Jackson, Gabriel. The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-1939. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.
– Landis, Arthur, H. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade. New York: Citadel Press, 1967.
– Rolfe, Edwin. The Lincoln Battalion. New York: Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 1974.
– Rosenstone, Robert. Crusade of the Left: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. New York: Pegasus, 1969.
Ready To Join?
The Abraham Lincoln Battalion (ALB) living history collective is always recruiting! If you share a passionate interest in Spanish history, radical history, American volunteerism, or even World War II (the Spanish Civil War is sometimes referred to as the "laboratory" or "dress rehearsal" for the Second World War since many of the tactics, machinery, and weapons were tested during the conflict), then the ALB may be the place for you!
The ALB abides by all federal, state, and local laws and all rules set forth by the Historical Unit of Southern California. The unit's rules will be distributed to each member with the general member's informational packet upon joining. However, there are a few basic guidelines that are required of each brigadista.
– Must be 18 years or older (or have parental permission).
– Pay $30/year dues to the Historical Unit of Southern California.
– Aquire the basic unit impression (we have loaner gear for those just starting out!).
– Must attend at least one event each year.
In general, reenacting/living history is an expensive hobby and the challenge of assembling an appropriate kit can be daunting. This process is made even more complex for those wishing to portray Spanish Civil War units because there are very few vendors outside of Spain that produce authentic uniforms and equipment.
That said, acquiring the necessary uniform and equipment to authentically portray an ALB brigadista is about on par, cost-wise, with other 20th century military impressions. Below, you will find the basic uniform requirements (and a few next steps) that every member should begin to acquire.
The uniforms of the ALB were, perhaps ironically, not uniform throughout the war. Sometimes they were issued uniforms when they mustered into the battalion, sometimes the Communist Party gave them an allowance to purchase equipment from Army/Navy stores before they left the U.S., and sometimes they would get hand-me-downs. However, below are some good guidelines for those just starting out.
Talk to us on our Facebook group, or over email, for the names of suppliers in Spain and the U.S.
An isabelino sidecap, a black, olive, or tan Basque beret (100% felted wool, no leather sweatband, no eyelets), OR a pasamontañas cap.
A reproduction Spanish shirt OR a modified Luftwaffe tropical shirt.
A reproduction cazadora in wool, cotton, or corduroy (colors can range from olive green to brown to khaki) OR Spanish M1926 jacket.
A 1.5–2 inch wide leather belt, black or brown with a single or double-pronged sheet-brass buckle.
Reproduction or original Spanish brown or black leather cartridge box. At least one must be worn but preferably three, with appropriate Y-straps OR a M1903 British leather bandolier (50 or 90-round version).
Reproduction bombachos in wool or cotton, gathered at the ankle OR certain World War I British trousers.
Reproduction alpargatas, 1917 World War I American infantry boots, OR certain WWII German low boots.
M1891 or M1891/30 Mosin-Nagant rifle (preferably with hex receiver) OR Spanish M16 Mauser.
Original Spanish or certain Bulgarian screw-top canteens.
Uniform Next Steps
Export-model M26 Adrian helmet (no plate holes in the front) OR Czech VZ-30.
Spanish aluminum cup with a brown or black leather strap.
Reproduction Spanish bread bag or certain Bulgarian military shoulder bags.
Reproduction or original Spanish blanket (100% wool).
Ready To Join?
August 7-9, 2020
Brunete Offensive // Yucaipa, California // Private Picket Post
Indefinitely postponed due to COVID-19
More photos can be seen on our social media accounts.
August 3-4, 2019
The Ebro Offensive // Yucaipa, California // Private Picket Post
July 7-8, 2018
Old Fort MacArthur Days // San Pedro, California // Living History Event