Skip to main content

1898 One Hundred Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

A Message to Garcia

On April 9 Lt. Andrew S. Rowan of the U.S. Army embarked on a secret mission to Cuba. War with Spain, Cuba’s colonial master, looked imminent, and the Army needed to find Gen. Calixto Garcia, leader of the anti-Spanish rebels. Since Rowan spoke fluent Spanish and had recently cowritten a book about Cuba, he was a natural choice for the job.

Following a layover in Jamaica, Rowan set off in a small sailboat manned by Cuban rebels. Around midnight on April 24 he landed at a secluded spot and disappeared into the woods. After a week in the rugged terrain of the Sierra Maestra, Rowan reached Garcia’s camp at Bayamo. He offered America’s assistance and brought home two rebel officers, who provided useful information.

Rowan’s mission, though certainly valuable, was just one of many military intelligence efforts conducted that spring. It rates somewhere between a paragraph and a page in most histories of the conflict. The episode would have quickly passed from the public mind had it not caught the attention of Elbert Hubbard.

Hubbard was a retired sales manager who spent his time writing and running the Roycroft arts and crafts studio in East Aurora, New York. Hubbard published a magazine called The Philistine , and on February 22, 1899, he spent a trying day with his office staff, “endeavoring to train some rather delinquent villagers to abjure the comatose state and get radioactive,” as he recalled with characteristic vividness in 1913. That evening, over tea, Hubbard’s son brought up Rowan’s exploit of the previous year. Inspired by the contrast between the lieutenant’s initiative and his own subordinates’ sloth, Hubbard banged out a short, untitled piece praising Rowan’s gumption and inserted it in the March issue. The article concluded: “The world cries out for such: he is needed, and needed badly—the man who can carry a message to Garcia.”

Hubbard later said that he wrote the essay in an hour, and it shows. While the gist of the story is accurate, most of its details are wrong. His prose tends to the crotchety: “It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebra. …” Other passages verge on the reactionary: “A first-mate with a knotted club seems necessary; and the dread of getting ‘the bounce’ Saturday night, holds many a worker to his place.” Or a little later: “He is impervious to reason, and the only thing that can impress him is the toe of a thick-soled No. 9 boot.”

Nonetheless, Hubbard’s peevish jeremiad against inefficient personnel struck a chord with employers across the country. Requests for copies poured into East Aurora, capped by an order for one hundred thousand from the New York Central Railroad. Hundreds of magazines reprinted the piece, and it was translated into twenty foreign languages. (Every railroad worker in Russia received a copy, though Hubbard’s eat-your-vegetables brand of capitalism ultimately lost out to the communist Utopia of Karl Marx.) In the decade and a half after publication, some forty million copies were reprinted. “Carrying a message to Garcia” became a catch phrase for getting a job done without stopping to ask how or why.

Among his many eccentricities, Hubbard favored the simplified spelling that saw a brief vogue around the turn of the century. Thus physical was rendered as fysikal, worked as workt , and so forth. When Hubbard’s essay on Rowan appeared in The Philistine , this unconventional orthography yielded such disconcerting sentences as “Advertise for a stenografer and nine out of ten who apply can neither spell nor punctuate—& do not think it necessary to.” How many secretaries did Hubbard have to fire because they stubbornly insisted on spelling stenographer with a ph ? No one knows for sure. But it seems entirely reasonable that his exasperation with such pigheadedness inspired him to compose what has become, for better or worse, a classic paean to both self-reliance and unquestioning obedience to authority.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.