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Take a Message to Garcia

Forward by Marko Milakovich

NOTE: A brief article written by Elbert Hubbard over 100 years ago, at a time when Spain was occupying Cuba, struck a resonant chord about leadership and self-sufficiency. The article has been translated into every major language and over 100 million copies were sold. The article detailed how Army Lieutenant Andrew Summers Rowan was tasked to take a message to the Cuban rebel forces leader, General Calixto Garcia. To this day, the article is used in military training classes. The following was written by Marko Milakovich as a preface, to place the story into the historical context of Lt. Rowan’s at the time of his mission. The actual article can be found in many places on the Internet, or just click here.

Perhaps you have heard the expression “Take a Message to Garcia” and didn’t know it’s origin or were not sure of it’s meaning; or, perhaps you have never heard it. In either case there is a basic attribute of the human character conveyed by this expression and all that it represents. It reflects something inside a person which tells who he is and his values. The person with these values is the person I want next to me, whether in combat or in today’s business world. Is the “message” fact, fiction, or some gray in-between. It is fiction, but all the circumstances surrounding it are so plausible that it is easy to believe it fact. Regardless, what it represents is very real and the page of history from which it originates is both fascinating and informative.

It was a time in our United States history in the late 1800s. We were still young, untried, and not yet a major force in world affairs. But we had a vitality and spirit as vibrant that comes with the pride and energy of youth. Spain was the colonial master of Cuba, and they ruled it with an iron fist, like other of their colonial possessions, including Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In this setting many American businesses managed to flourish, in spite of the repressive control of Spain. The repressive control eventually gave rise to rebellion and guerrilla warfare. It was a time which become known as the Ten Years Revolt and it came to a head in 1895 when Spain sent 20,000 solders to put down the rebellion and regain control. Concentration camps were established and many women and children perished. The guerrilla warfare intensified and was often supported by Americans with plantations in Cuba and Cuban patriots who lived in Florida and staged military operations into Cuba – an eerie situation and forerunner of another time in our history yet to come.

What would the United States do? The transgressions on human rights gave rise to the sympathy of many and the business interests of Americans were in dire jeopardy. And politically, there was the Monroe Doctrine which said the United States wanted the European powers to stay out of the affairs of our part of the world. It was a delicate situation confronting President William McKinley who assumed the presidency on March 4, 1997. He wanted to maintain peace, but there was a limit. In a diplomatic move, more recently referred to as “gunboat diplomacy”, he sent the USS Maine to Cuba where it anchored in Havana harbor. Even though due diligence was maintained, the USS Maine, captained by Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, inexplicably blew up on February 15, 1898 at 9:40 P.M. Of the 354 officers and men on board the Maine, 266 were killed and many others received severe injuries. Although a board of inquiry failed to objectively determine whether the explosion was due to an enemy torpedo or mine or resulted from inadequately vented coal, fuel storage compartments, emotionally, there was no question as to what happened. It was during the ensuing national fervor the press seized on the call-to-arms cry of “Remember the Maine”.

The momentum of the Maine carried to the Congress, which on March 9th, unanimously passed the Fifty Million Dollar Bill authorizing the president to prepare the army and navy for a war that had not yet been declared. On April 11th President McKinley send a war message to Capitol Hill, where it was swiftly approved. On April 21, 1898, the United States Government declared a naval blockade of Cuba.
This was the time. The United States must get word to the commander of the Cuban guerrilla force that his cooperation was needed and the U.S. was about to take action -- a coordinated military effort was essential. But how would President McKinley get the message to the elusive guerrilla commander somewhere in the jungles of Cuba. While voicing his dilemma, Colonel Arthur Wagner, head of the Bureau of Military Intelligence said he knew of a young, resourceful Army officer by the name of Lieutenant Andrew Summers Rowan who was capable of the mission. And this fictional account was born of the pen by Elbert Hubbard on February 22, 1899.
Events moved quickly in the development of “A splendid little War”, as it was referred to by John Milton Hay, U.S. Secretary of State. On May 26, 1898 President McKinley and his cabinet made the decision to send sixteen thousand American solders to fight the Spanish. These troops landed near Santiago June 22-26, 1898.

Up to this time, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy was Theodore Roosevelt. However, explaining that “My power for good, whatever it may be, would be gone if I didn’t try to live up to the doctrines I have tried to preach,” he resigned from his naval position, taking a Lieutenant Colonel’s commission in the First Volunteer Cavalry. Even though the unit was initially under the command of Dr. Leonard Wood, it was Roosevelt who called for volunteers and it was to him they came. Quickly, they become known as “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.” After Dr. Wood was promoted, the regiment then came under full command of Roosevelt.

The Rough Riders experienced their first combat on June 24th. Then, on July 1st Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had reached a series of fortified hills, beyond which lay the objective, the city of Santiago. When they arrived, they were immediately behind the front line of troops, but close enough that bullets were finding their mark. Roosevelt’s orderly was hit and so was his friend, Captain O’Neill. He waited impatiently for his orders and finally they arrived. When the green regiment in front of him hesitated, Roosevelt rode through his troops to their front and addressed the regiment in front, shouting “Let my men through”. Waving his revolver, Roosevelt personally led the charge up San Juan Hill, routing the enemy. However, the enemy had fled to the next hill and with the artillery and rifle fire from the second hill, Teddy and his Rough Riders were extremely exposed and vulnerable – no time to hesitate. Unable to cross a defensive line of barbed wire, Roosevelt leaped from his horse, and on-foot, charged toward the second hill. He had not gone far before he realized he had only five men behind him. Cursing, he returned to the first hill and discovered most of his men had not heard his orders. This time, as he again charged the second hill, all his troops were behind him and followed, hollering with wild battle cries. The sight totally unnerved the Spanish and the battle ended quickly. Of the 500 Rough Riders, eighty-nine had been hit and miraculously, Roosevelt had escaped injury. Riding on a wave of public adoration, the charismatic Roosevelt was later to become vice president in 1901, and was shortly thereafter become president upon McKinley’s assassination.

During the war with Spain, national sentiment ran high and a word was often used within this context – jingoism. It meant extreme nationalism, honor, and fierce devotion to the interests of one’s own country. Perhaps you have heard the expression “by jingo”, which at one time was a commonly used in the popular vernacular.

For those with a technical inclination, or perhaps from a military background and familiar with the military principles of “Command, Control, and Communications (C3 or C-cubed)”, you might find interest in the systems devised by President McKinley. Within the White House, McKinley had a War Room where the battle positions where identified on maps. To disseminate his instructions, he recorded them on wax records in a gramophone and sent them out on fifteen telephone lines. Corresponding written messages were sent out on twenty telegraph lines, all of which emanated from the War Room. The result of Roosevelt's “C-cubed”, was that he had more influence over strategic decisions made by his commanders in the field than any other previous president – a foreshadow of the employment of technology in the White House in wars to come.

The Spanish-American War was referred to as the War of 1898 -- the “splendid little war”. It was short and only lasted about 100 days, from April to August. It freed Cuba from Spanish occupation and had many other outcomes. Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded to the United States by Spain, the Philippines came under the protectorship of the U.S., and in a preemptive move, Hawaii was annexed.

It was a time of high national emotion and heroic acts. It was a time when a story appeared about a young lieutenant who took “A message to Garcia” in Cuba at the start of the war -- and it struck a chord, both at home and abroad. The story went to Russia and subsequently to Japan, Germany, France, Spain, Turkey, Hindustan, and China. Over 40 million copies have been printed and it has become a classic, and is still available for purchase today. Was the story real? No, but it certainly could have been and if this question is asked to someone at random, the most likely answer would be “Of course it’s real” – that is if they have heard of it. And if they haven’t, they have missed a bit of the essence of our national heritage.

A special thanks to the following sources of information:

“The Spanish-American War” by Deborah Bachrach, copyright 1991 by Lucent Books, Inc., P.O.Box 289011, San Diego, CA 92198-0011, ISBN 1-56006-405-6.

“Theodore Roosevelt” by Louis Musso, III, copyright 1982 by Story House Corporation, printed by SamHar Press, Charlotteville, N.Y. 12036 ( a Division of Story House Corporation).

“America in the Gilded Age” by Sean Dennis Cashman, second edition, copyright 1984, 1988 by New York University, ISBN 0-8147-1417-X (alk. paper), ISBN 0-8147-1418-8 (pbk).

“Tools of the Trade”, forward to Air Command and Staff course 2190, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 1970.