Remembering the Volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

by Rebeca on May 25, 2009

Today is Memorial Day and many of us are honoring the soldiers who defended our country and ideals in the numerous wars we’ve fought and in our current ones in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In today’s post, I’d like to honor the writer-warriors of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. These men and women were volunteers from the United States who served in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Of the 2,800, writers such as Alvah Bessie, Edwin Rolfe, James Gardner–son of humorist Ring Lardner and brother of screenwriter and Hollywood Ten member Ring Lardner, Jr.–Milt Woolf, James Neugass, and many more, illegally crossed into Spain from France to fight Franco and save the democratically-elected Spanish government. According to estimates, 800 American volunteers died in Spain including James Lardner–the last American casualty.

Not many Americans know of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, its history, or about the Spanish Civil War-a war known as the practice run to World War II. Readers who want to learn more about the “Abies” as they were known in the 1930s, should read Peter Carroll’s The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade or read Alvah Bessie’s Men in Battle. For a quick introduction┬ávisit the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

As to why these men and women volunteered in a war that America wanted no part, reporter James Gardner said it best in a letter to his mother:

Mother, darling,
This is a letter which I started to write on April 10. At that time I thought I was going to have to break the news to you gently, but you seem to have heard it before I had the chance. I have kept putting off writing you because each day it seemed as it on the next I would know what I was going to do and where I would be stationed. I still don’t know exactly what the situation is, but I am leaving in half an hour for Badalona, about seven miles up the coast, where I will learn the rudiments of artillery in company with a new mixed international unit. It looks as if French will be the medium of instruction. I shall let you know more as soon as I can.

This is a most exclusive army. It has taken me twelve days of going from person to person and office to get where I am. I have listened to advice of all varieties, a large part of it against my enlisting at all. The decision has been very much my own, and I took it after a great deal of consideration. My closest friend and principal adviser here has been Vincent (Jimmy) Sheean, who told me not to join, which shows you how stubborn I am, if you didn’t know. Ernest Hemingway’s advice was that it was a very fine thing if I wanted to fight against fascism, but that it was a personal matter that could only be decided by me.

I don’t know how closely you have followed the war, but I imagine you must have an exaggerated idea of the danger of our position. On the map it looks as if Catalonia were a small fragment of territory about to be pushed into the Mediterranean, but in reality it is a lot of country, and I don’t think it will ever be conquered. There are too many people here who are fighting for things they believe in, and too few on the other side.

My views on the whole question are too complicated for me to try to explain here. I hope you are on our side and will try to convince your friends that I am not just being foolish. Not that I mind being though foolish, but American opinion is a very important factor.

I have made up a list of reasons why I am enlisting in the International Brigade, which is fairly accurate, as I did it for my own information. I am copying it here so that you may see for yourself which are the real ones. Some of them are picayune and most of them would have been insufficient in themselves, but all have something to do with it.

Because I believe that fascism is wrong and must be exterminated, and that liberal democracy or more probably communism is right.

Because my joining the I.B. might have an effect on the amendment of the neutrality act in the United States. Because after the war is over I shall be a more effective anti-fascist.
Because in my ambitious quest for knowledge in all fields, I cannot afford in this age to overlook war.
Because I shall come into contact with a lot of communists, who are very good company and from whom I expect to learn things.
Because I am mentally lazy and should like to do some physical work for a change.
Because I need something remarkable in my background to make up for my unfortunate self-consciousness in social relations.
Because I am tired of working for the Herald Tribune in particular and newspapers in general.
Because I think it will be good for my soul.
Because there is a girl in Paris who will have to learn that my presence is not necessary to her existence.
Because I want to impress various people, Bill for one
Because I hope to find material for some writing, probably a play.
Because I want to improve my Spanish as well as my French.
Because I want to know what it is like to be afraid of something and I want to see how other people react to danger.
Because there may be a chance to do some reading and I won’t have to wear a necktie.
Because I should like once more to get in good physical condition.

The first four reasons and the ninth, especially the first, are the most important ones in my opinion, but you may decide for yourself. I have also considered a few reasons why I should not join the army, such as that I might get seriously wounded or killed and that I shall cause you many weeks of worry. I am sorry for your sake that they are not enough to dissuade me. If it is any comfort to you at all, I still hate violence and cruelty and suffering and if I survive this war do not expect to take any dangerous part in the next.

If you still consider me one of your sons, you can send me an occasional letter and possibly a package now and then. My address here, I think, will be in care of the Brigadas Internacionales, but for a while I think it will be simpler to communicate through the Sheeans. Anything edible would be appreciated, milk chocolate or raisins, or anything in cans that does not require preparation.


In memory of those who fought and died in Spain.



{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Randall Radic May 25, 2009 at 4:08 pm

I liked reading that, especially all the “becauses.” Because it demonstrates that our emotional brains govern our choices as much as or more than our intellectual brains, e.g., “I want to impress various people…”

Very nice. Thank you.

Michele May 25, 2009 at 10:56 pm

Fabulous post….I loved reading it.

Rebeca May 26, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Thank you so much! This group of volunteers mean a lot to me and my family. My mother was a leftisy Spanish Republican–who hated Franco–and she admired the “Abies” since she was very young. In fact, she was the one who told me all about Alvah Bessie and how much she admired his idealism and his bravery to fight in Spain and later HUAC. Next month and in July, I’m planning something very special for this site. I hope you come often and comment.

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