Monday, July 10, 2006

Oliver Law

Oliver Law. The Spanish Civil War drew combatants from all over the world. International brigades were formed by men from a variety of nations to fight on the side of Republican forces. One of these brigades was the Abraham Lincoln Battalion which was composed of American volunteers. The battalion is believed to be the first American military unit to be racially-integrated and was at one point commanded by Oliver Law, who may have been the first black man to lead white American combat troops.

Oliver Law was born in 1899 in Texas. He served in the American Army during World War One. He joined the Communist Party USA during the Great Depression and became an activist on labor issues.

Wikipedia notes, "Strongly opposed to Fascism, he led demonstrations against Italy's occupation of Ethiopia (Second Italo-Abyssinian War), and in 1936 he travelled to Spain to join the forces fighting against Francisco Franco and the Nationalists. An outstanding soldier with considerable military experience, he served in a machine gun company and soon became the commander of the battalion. It was the first time that an African American commanded white American troops."

The blogged site reports this quote from Oliver Law after the offensive at Jarama River in 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. "

Law is one of those men who died in the doomed Republican cause. He died on July 9th, 1937 attacking Mosquito Ridge in combat near Madrid. Harry Fisher, the battalion runner reported, "He was the first man over the top. He was in the furthest position when he was hit by a Fascist bullet in the chest."

Oliver Law fought on the losing side of a civil war far from his home expressing a belief in a cause (communism) that would fail to take root in the USA. Despite this, he remains an interesting historical note. It does indeed appear that he was the first black man to lead whites into combat in an American military unit. I am surprised no one has a made a movie about this guy yet. (Or maybe someone has and I am just not aware of it.)


drodg said...

That's a nice story - but what about the fact that Law, like Robert Hale Merriman, another Lincoln leader, was only promoted for propaganda purposes and was an incompetent officer, whose mistakes led to unnecessary deaths amongst his troops? Would that be included in the movie?
And what about the assertion that Law was - in an early example of 'fragging' - actually killed by his own men, because he was hopelessly stupid and his incompetence was killing too many of his own soldiers?
The assertion is made by another Lincoln member, William Herrick, in his book 'Jumping the Line', and historian Cecil Eby gives both the 'heroic death' and 'fragging' versions in 'Between the Bullet and the Lie'.
As to Harry Fisher's 'eyewitness' report, it should not surprise anyone that lifelong Communists stick to the Party line - Fisher no doubt learned his trade well in his long employment at the New York office of Tass, the Soviet news agency.

ourland said...

My uncle Norman Law died in Spain in 1936 with the A.L. Battalion. My father was named Oliver and for more than 40 years thought the "other Oliver" was a corruption of my uncle's! Only when I showed him an article revealing his race did my father (a German caucasian) believe that they were not the same individuals. My uncle Norman's remains were never found and his actual demise remains a mystery. I would love to greet anyone who knows!

Grover Furr said...

I have examined and completely refuted William Herrick's falsehood about Law's death. See "Anatomy of an Anticommunist Fabrication: The Death of Oliver Law, An Historiographical Investigation." In Reconstruction 8.1. (Published March 19, 2008) at

Grover Furr

Alan R. said...

Grover Furr has been proven to be nothing more than a Stalinist hack that some university unfortunately chose to hire. Anything he says about the Lincoln Battalion must be taken with a grain of salt.

One can believe the Party, or Furr's version. The other version, which he DID NOT refute, is that Lincoln veterans, sickened by Law's ineptitude and by the fact he had led them into several ambushes at Brunete claim that he was shot down by his own men after one such failed attack.

See Herrick's "Jumping the Line", his excellent historical fiction account, "Hermanos", Cecil B. Eby's "Between the Bullet and the Lie", and Wolfe's "The Great Prince Died" for what is more likely the true account.

Furr may also cite the late Harry Fisher's "Comrades" - Fisher also being a vet and buddy of Law's. But anything Fisher wrote must also be taken with a grain salt as he joined the TASS bureau in New York after the war and stayed with them, a willing apparatchik despite the horrific crimes of Stalin, including murder of the Jewish cultural elite in Russia, for over five decades.

Grover Furr said...

Alan R wrote:

"The other version, which he DID NOT refute, is that Lincoln veterans, sickened by Law's ineptitude and by the fact he had led them into several ambushes at Brunete claim that he was shot down by his own men after one such failed attack."

In fact, I DID refute that lie, completely! See my article at

as cited above.

sh said...

Grover Furr may be a Stalinist hack, but he is right on this one. And the attempt to red-bait Fisher doesn't dismiss the fact that he and the operating surgeon were closer to the scene than that renegade Herrick (upon whose latter-day account all the other fragging claims are based).

libertas said...

Ourland, I have some additional information about Norman Law, but I think that you are mistaken about the 1936 date. I believe it must have been late 1937.

Stephen Smith

Yuri Gagarin said...

vamos a ver payasos. Competente o no Law fue el primer afroamericano en comandar un batallón de blancos estadounidenses y tuvo que ser en España, mi país. No en vuestro remanso de paz y democracia donde los negros fueron segregados por su color de piel hasta bien entrado el siglo XX. Así que me río yo de vuestra democracia y las ganas que hay por aquí de dejar al señor Law como un negro incompetente con delirios de héroe.
Al principio de la guerra civil el comunismo en España era prácticamente inexistente . Fue la derecha española con la ayuda de la iglesia la Alemania nazi y la Italia fascista los que dieron un golpe de estado y derrocaron un gobierno legitimo votado por el pueblo. Law por lo menos tuvo los cojones de venir aquí a luchar por sus ideales. En España hubo una persecución sistemática por parte de la dictadura franquista para aniquilar a cualquier persona con o sin pruebas que oliera a otra cosa que no fuera fascismo. ¿Donde estaban los países occidentales, francia e inglaterra que se negaron a vender armamento a la república o los grandes estados unidos que pasaron de largo y le rascaron la barriga a franco porque preferían un dictador idiota y asesino que un posible gobierno socialista en su bonito marco europeo. Podéis meteros vuestra leche en polvo y vuestra ley Marshall por donde os quepa. La historia la crían los vencedores para gente como vosotros la siga alimentando. Viva españa y viva la república.