Getting the Real Message to Garcia

Getting the Real Message to Garcia

By Thomas Fleming
1/11/2019 • MHQ Magazine

America’s first goal in 1898 was to relieve Cuba’s suffering, but once troops landed on the island, Cuban rebels found they had traded one form of imperialism for another.

On Washington’s birthday, 1899, in their home in East Aurora, New York, publisher Elbert Hubbard and his son Bert began discussing the war with Spain. The 113-day conflict had ended in an American victory two months earlier. “Who was the real hero of the war?” Bert asked. Was it Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, who led his Rough Riders in a famous charge up San Juan Hill outside the port of Santiago de Cuba? Was it Admiral George Dewey, who shattered a Spanish fleet in Manila Harbor in the Philippines? Was it the young Navy officer, Richmond P. Hobson, who piloted the collier Merrimac through a hail of Spanish shells in a daring attempt to sink the ship in the mouth of Santiago Harbor and trap the Spanish fleet?

None of the above, Bert Hubbard told his father, the publisher recalled years later in his newspaper account. The real hero of the war was U.S. Army 1st Lt. Andrew S. Rowan, who had carried a crucial message from President William McKinley to General Calixto García of the Cuban Revolutionary Army several weeks before war was declared.

Hubbard wondered if Bert was right. After coffee, he went into his study, sat down at his desk, and brooded over an empty page in his magazine, The Philistine, which was about to go to press. The page was a symptom of the problems he had been having with his “comatose” staff. Suddenly Hubbard realized that his son was right: Lieutenant Rowan was the hero of the war. The hero is the man who does his job unquestioningly, who carries the message to García.

In a blaze of emotion, Hubbard began writing an article describing why Rowan was the one man who stood out in the crowded story of the Spanish-American War. “It was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the [Cuban] Insurgents,” he wrote. “García was somewhere in the mountain vastness of Cuba….The President must secure his cooperation, and quickly. What to do!”

Someone told the president, “There’s a fellow by the name of Rowan will find García for you, if anybody can.”

“Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to García. How ‘the fellow by name of Rowan’ took the letter, sealed it up in an oil-skin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered it to García” was an indubitable epic of heroism.

The point Hubbard wished to make was this: “McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to García; Rowan took the letter and did not ask: ‘Where is he at?’”

For his unquestioning obedience to orders and his initiative, Hubbard declared that Rowan was a man whose form deserved to be cast in deathless bronze and his statue placed in every college in the land. His example tells us that “it is not book-learning that young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing—‘Carry a message to García!’”

Hubbard went on in this vein for several more pages, citing examples of how employees shirk and whine while questioning orders and instructions. Faced with these workers, the employer yearns for a man who, when given a letter to García, “quietly…[does] aught else but deliver it.” “Civilization,” Hubbard declared, “is one long anxious search for just such individuals…the man who can carry a message to García.”

Hubbard thought so little of this essay that he published it in The Philistine as filler on the empty page, without a title. Suddenly orders poured in for extra copies of the magazine. When the American News Company requested a thousand, Hubbard asked what was “stirring up the cosmic dust?” His staff told him it was “the stuff about García.” The next day George Davies, president of the New York Central Railroad, telegraphed, asking for a price on one hundred fifty thousand copies of “The Message to García,” with an ad for the railroad’s Empire State Express on the back. Hubbard told him it would take his company two years to print that many copies on their small presses. He gave Davies permission to hire his own printer.

The railroad issued the essay in booklet form, in five-hundred-thousand-copy printings. Soon hundreds of magazines and newspapers had reprinted the piece. The director of the Russian Railway system had it translated and distributed to every railroad employee in Russia. Next, it was being printed in German, French, Spanish, Turkish, and Chinese. Before the frenzy subsided, over forty million copies were in circulation worldwide. Hubbard decided to expand his opus into a book, which sold four million copies.

Elbert Hubbard became a famous writer and was soon getting even richer as a lecturer, dramatizing Rowan’s exploit from hundreds of platforms. Tragedy cut his career short in 1915; on the way to a lecture tour in England, he died when a German submarine sank the ocean liner Lusitania. However, “The Message to García” has lived on. Computer users can find page after page of praise for the story on the Internet. Hubbard’s message—and Rowan’s story—is still an inspiration to capitalists everywhere.

Unfortunately, Hubbard got most of the story wrong. First Lieu- tenant Andrew S. Rowan was not some “fellow” that a presidential aide picked out of a hat to contact the Cuban rebel general. The West Virginian was a forty-one-year-old West Point graduate, class of 1881, and a veteran intelligence officer. He had already served with distinction in Canada and Central America, and had written a book on Cuba in 1897—a careful description of the island’s topography. As a military attaché in Chile, he had learned Spanish. G.J.A. O’Toole, in a book about U.S. intelligence efforts, described him as “a wiry, compactly built man, with a mobile countenance, swarthy skin and a stubby black military mustache.”

The man who recommended Rowan to the president was Colonel Arthur Wagner, head of the U.S. Army’s Military Information Division. Wagner had a reputation as a joker. In mid-April 1898, he invited Rowan to lunch at the Army-Navy Club in Washington, D.C. Before they were settled in their seats, Wagner said, “When does the next boat leave for Jamaica?”

Writing years later “How I Carried the Message to Garcia,” in Foundations magazine, Rowan recorded that he thought Wagner was pulling an elaborate practical joke. Nevertheless, he went out to the club’s reception desk and asked a clerk to make the inquiry. When he returned with the information that Adirondack, a British ship, would sail from New York the next day at noon, Wagner asked: “Can you be on that boat?” Smiling, still sure it was a joke, Rowan said, “Yes.”

“Then prepare to take that boat,” Wagner said, dispelling all presumptions of humor. He said President William McKinley had selected Rowan to carry a message to General Calixto García, one of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution. García was somewhere in eastern Cuba. It was Rowan’s job to find him and get an appraisal of the military situation on the island. “The outcome of a possible war with Spain will depend upon you. Goodbye and good luck,” Wagner said.

Rowan knew as well as Wagner that the United States was close to war with Spain. The Cubans had launched their latest revolution in 1895. Yellow journalist press lords William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer had embraced the rebel cause as a wonderful way to sell newspapers. They portrayed the Cubans as victorious in countless imaginary clashes with the Spanish, and called on the United States to recognize the rebels as legitimate fighters for independence, entitled to American aid. The government had stonily declined to take their advice.

In spite of the fulsome newspaper propaganda, the war had not gone well for the Cubans. Their charismatic political leader, José Marti, had been killed in the first skirmish. Their best general, the so-called “Bronze Titan,” mulatto José Maceo, had been killed in 1897. The Spanish shipped tens of thousands of troops to Cuba led by a tough Prussian-style commander, General Valeriano Weyler, to fight a war of extermination against the rebels. Weyler laced the island with huge ditches, called trochas, in which he built heavily armed forts every few miles, to separate the rebel armies and enable the Spanish to destroy them piecemeal.

The chief rebel general, Máximo Gómez, was in his seventies. Both he and García were veterans of the earlier Cuban rebellion that began in 1868 and sputtered out in 1879. In this latest uprising, Commander in Chief Gómez soon had abandoned all hope of defeating the Spanish army in battle and had resorted to guerrilla tactics. The rebels had burned thousands of acres of sugar cane, then as now Cuba’s chief crop, and had ruthlessly executed anyone found operating a grinding mill. The revolutionaries even extended their terrorist reach to Spain. In June 1897, a Spanish anarchist, traveling with money supplied to him by the Cuban agent in Paris, assassinated Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo.

The yellow journalists downplayed the rebels’ brutal tactics and painted General Weyler as “The Butcher,” responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Cubans, whom the Spanish had herded into “reconcentration camps” to deprive the rebels of food and recruits from the countryside. The pages of Hearst’s New York Journal and Pulitzer’s New York World palpitated with stories of Spanish atrocities against Cuban men, women, and children.

One reporter, George Bronson Rea of the New York Herald, in 1897 published a counterattack against the Hearst Pulitzer version of the war, Facts and Fakes About Cuba. Rea, who had worked as an engineer on Cuban sugar plantations for five years, lashed out at reporters who seldom left the city limits of Havana and relied on their imaginations and “facts” supplied by the rebels to file their stories. Rea, who had roamed the Cuban countryside, asserted that he had found no evidence of Spanish atrocities anywhere in Cuba. He took a dim view of the rebel campaign to destroy the Cuban economy.

Adding to the rebels’ woes was a new Spanish policy. The prime minister who replaced the murdered Cánovas was a liberal. He recalled General Weyler and announced that Spain was supporting “autonomy” for Cuba, an arrangement not unlike the dominion status—semi-independence—the British had granted Canada. Although General Máximo Gómez denounced the proposal, it seemed to be attracting support among a broad spectrum of Cubans. Many Americans also liked the idea.

President McKinley had taken office in 1897 determined to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. However, Hearst and Pulitzer made this task difficult. Then came a disaster that changed everything. On February 15, 1898, USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, killing two officers and 258 men. McKinley had sent the stubby battleship to Havana to protect American lives and property. “This means war,” shouted a delighted William Randolph Hearst when he heard the news.

The most probable culprits were the Cuban rebels. Nevertheless, Hearst and Pulitzer had no difficulty blaming the Spanish for the ship’s destruction. “Remember the Maine” rapidly became a national war cry. Representatives for the Cuban provisional government in New York, which had borrowed two million dollars from local bankers to fund a pro-independence campaign, hammered the president and Congress with propaganda.

An inflamed Congress forced President McKinley to accept a resolution calling for immediate intervention in Cuba—a virtual declaration of war. They also passed an amendment to this resolution declaring that the United States repudiated “any disposition to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control” over Cuba. Some historians think that not a little of the junta’s two-million-dollar loan from New York bankers was paid to certain senators to persuade them to pass this amendment.

By this time, Lieutenant Rowan was en route to Jamaica, disguised as an English sportsman. (Another intelligence officer, Lieutenant Charles F. Parker, was sailing to Puerto Rico using the same disguise.) Reaching Jamaica on April 20, Rowan cabled Colonel Wagner of his arrival. He immediately met a Mr. Lay at the headquarters of the Cuban government in exile in Kingston, and planned with his aides how to reach Cuba.

Three days later, Rowan received a coded order: “Join García as soon as possible.” He headed directly to the rebel headquarters, and within half an hour there was a carriage at the door. “Through Kingston’s streets…and out into the open country I was carried at breakneck speed in [the] closed carriage,” Rowan later recalled. “My driver refused to talk to me and apparently did not relish being talked to.”

After hours of riding and a transfer to another carriage with another uncommunicative driver, the weary Rowan dozed in the carriage’s darkness until the blowing of a whistle shocked him awake. Pulling aside the curtain, he found the carriage surrounded by armed men. They escorted him into a nearby house, where he was given some supper. At the table, he met a ruggedly built man with a fierce mustache and a missing thumb. This was Commandante Gervasio Sabio, who regularly made clandestine trips between Jamaica and Cuba, delivering mail and passengers.

Sabio joined Rowan in the carriage, and the two men traveled together for the next seven or eight miles, which brought them to the Jamaican coast. Offshore was a fishing boat. Sabio’s men exchanged signals with the crew, and the boat approached the shore. A husky sailor waded out to the craft with Rowan on his back. Sabio soon joined him on the boat’s deck, and they began the risky hundred-mile voyage to Cuba.

Once at sea, Rowan knew they would be potential targets of Spanish lanchas. These boats patrolled the waters around Cuba and enforced a blockade that had deprived the rebel armies of weapons, ammunition, and food. Equipped with pivot guns (light cannons), machine guns, and sailors armed with Mausers (far superior to the rebels’ ancient rifles and Rowan’s Smith & Wesson revolver), lanchas would show Rowan and his Cuban friends no mercy.

Toward dawn, a cry of alarm awakened Rowan. One of the lookouts had spotted a lancha. Sabio ordered Rowan and the rest of the crew to fling themselves below the boat’s gunwale, among the bundles of mail that constituted the cargo. They waited tensely while the sound of the lancha’s engine drew closer. Sabio lounged at the tiller, the only man in sight.

“How are the fish biting?” called the young captain of the lancha in Spanish, Rowan later wrote.

“The miserable creatures decline to bite this morning,” Sabio replied.

The lancha’s commander shook his head sympathetically and sailed on. At dawn Rowan and Sabio landed on the Cuban coast without further incident. Instantly, ragged rebels surrounded Rowan. They plunged into the jungle with him and Sabio, trudging along trails so narrow they often had to move single file. They needed to cross the Sierra Maestra, mountains that rise eight thousand feet from Cuba’s southern coast around Santiago de Cuba and extend well inland. Again and again, at a gesture from the man at the head of the column, they dived into the jungle and lay still. Soon the jingle of bridles would signal the passage of a Spanish cavalry patrol. Rowan and his escorts lay still, rifles and pistols cocked. “Spanish troops mercilessly hunted down Cubans and small mercy was shown by the forces directed by Weyler, ‘the butcher,’ to men found in arms, or outside the concentration camps, even though they might be unarmed,” Rowan recalled years later.

One night they paused for rest and food at a rebel camp in the jungle. Several men in Spanish army uniforms soon joined them. The deserters complained about the terrible food they received as rations, and how badly their officers had treated them. Something about their behavior made Rowan suspicious. He took Sabio aside and told him to question them closely and not let any of them leave.

At midnight, Rowan was asleep in a hammock when a gunshot awakened him. He sat up just in time to avoid a lunging figure with a dagger in his hand. A Cuban sentry quickly dispatched the would-be assassin with a machete. Before he died, the man said that another spy had planned to inform the Spanish that the rebels were escorting an American officer across Cuba. If he were discovered, the second spy was to kill Rowan. The American soon learned that another sentry had shot and killed the other spy as he tried to flee the camp.

More traveling awaited Rowan. On horseback, he and Sabio rode through the jungle, guided by Dionisito Lopez, a black rebel lieutenant who “could trace a course through this trackless forest, through the tangled growth, as quickly as he could ride,” tirelessly hacking a path with a machete. All this time, no one, including Sabio, was certain the group was going to find General García. Heavily outnumbered by the Spanish forces in eastern Cuba, the rebel commander changed camps frequently.

After nine exhausting days, Rowan and his party approached the ruins of the city of Bayamo. The war had made most of its thirty thousand citizens refugees. A delighted Sabio soon informed Rowan that García was there and was eager to meet him. In a few minutes, Rowan was shaking hands with the fifty-eight-year-old general, who was surrounded by well-armed bodyguards.

Calixto Ramón García Iñigues had been a wealthy plantation owner who had sacrificed everything he possessed to join the revolution. His hair and goatee were snow white; between his eyebrows was a deep cleft. During the collapse of the previous revolution, he had tried to kill himself rather than surrender. He had put a rifle under his chin and pulled the trigger. The bullet exited between his eyes. A Spanish surgeon decided he was a medical challenge and helped him survive. García subsequently spent four years in a Spanish prison. That grim history helped explain why he seldom smiled.

Rowan sat down with General García and delivered his message. It was verbal; there was no letter strapped over the lieutenant’s heart, as Elbert Hubbard imagined in his fervid article. Rowan told García that the president of the United States wanted detailed knowledge of Spain’s military strength in Cuba— and equally detailed information about the rebels’ strength. The Americans also wanted information on the condition of the roads, the location of Spanish strongpoints, suggestions for landing sites, and any ideas the general might have for a joint campaign against the Spanish.

Looking around him, Rowan was troubled by García’s ragged troops. They were emaciated. Their uniforms, when they had any, were in rags. García admitted his army, which numbered about fifteen thousand men in widely scattered units in eastern Cuba, was badly fed and short of ammunition. They had only about five rounds per man. He needed artillery to attack Spanish blockhouses, and he hoped the United States would supply him with new rifles and ammunition.

General García impressed Rowan. Later he would call him “one of nature’s noblemen.” Intellectually, Rowan thought García was “a great man.” He told a reporter that he did not think any other nation “under the circumstances can turn out a better soldier.”

The general realized that American help was crucial. In 1897 he had sent General Gómez a long letter, warning him the revolution was close to collapse. “Our forces are fading away,” he wrote. Gómez’s men were in even worse shape than García’s. Some Cuban Americans who reached the older general’s camp in 1898 described his army in graphic terms: “Not one man in a hundred with a whole suit of clothes, all torn and worn, with stomachs swollen from long subsistence on green fruit….They had but one to seven cartridges in their belts.” This was not an army; it was the wreckage of one.

García told Rowan he was somewhat embarrassed by the Americans’ choosing him as their first contact in Cuba. He would have preferred that Rowan seek out General Gómez, the only revolutionary leader García respected. Somewhere in eastern Cuba, Bartolome Maso led a handful of civilians, claiming to represent the republic and issuing patriotic exhortations that García considered worthless.

García decided it would be impossible for him to put into writing all the information Rowan wanted. Instead, he would send three of his most trusted officers to America with Rowan to supply Washington officials the details they needed. Since Spain had officially declared war with the United States while Rowan was trekking through the jungle, time was of the essence. Could Rowan begin his return trip in two hours?

Rowan’s return with his three Cuban companions was even more harrowing than his journey to García. With war declared, the Spanish were patrolling beaches and fishing villages. Moreover, Rowan, traveling in civilian clothes, was now officially a spy in enemy territory and could be executed after the briefest of military trials. Rowan and the three Cubans finally reached the village of Manati on Cuba’s north coast, where rebel sympathizers had a boat waiting for them. It was, Rowan recalled, a cockleshell, “capacity 104 cubic feet. For sails we had gunnysacks, pieced together. For rations boiled beef and water.”

In this fragile vessel they had to sail 150 miles to Nassau in the Bahama Islands. To get to sea, they rowed through the darkness past the guns of the Spanish fort guarding Manati Harbor. At any moment, Rowan later wrote, they expected to hear “the boom of a cannon and the scream of a shot.” They made it to open water undetected and for the next twelve hours spent most of their time bailing to keep their boat afloat. The weather was foul, and waves constantly broke over the bow.

In the dawn, someone shouted, “A steamer!” Was it a Spanish warship? Soon huge shrouded shapes loomed in the mist. Rowan quickly identified them as American warships, steaming toward the Cuban war zone. They were not close enough to hail, and for the next twenty-four hours, Rowan and his fellow messengers from García spent most of their time bailing and cursing the weather.

On May 7, a schooner picked them up and carried them to Nassau. From there they caught a boat to the Florida Keys. In two more days of travel by boats and trains, they were in Washington, D.C. García’s aides began briefing the waiting admirals and generals about the support they could expect to receive from the Cuban rebels—and the resistance they would meet from the eighty thousand Spanish troops in Cuba.

Since the regular U.S. Army at this point consisted of twenty-eight thousand men and twenty-one hundred officers, it was clear that the Americans were going to need volunteers to create a viable invasion army. Secretary of War Russell A. Alger recommended making Rowan a commander of one of the new regiments, vaulting him from first lieutenant to lieutenant colonel. A few days later Rowan was summoned to a meeting with McKinley and his cabinet. “Colonel,” said the president, who had been a major in the Civil War, “You have performed a very brave deed.”

It would be heartwarming to report that Rowan’s message from García persuaded the U.S. Army to work closely with the Cuban rebels. The García aides Rowan brought with him did their best to supply the military commanders with information they thought was important. For a while, at least, they (and perhaps others) seem to have convinced General Nelson A. Miles, commander of the U.S. Army, that the Cubans could play an important role in the coming campaign. Miles concocted a strategy that would send American invading forces into western Cuba, around Havana, to cooperate with rebels under Máximo Gómez. García’s army, backed by U.S. Navy guns and lavishly supplied with food, rifles, and ammunition, would clear the Spanish out of eastern Cuba.

Miles abandoned this plan when the Spanish fleet slipped past the Americans and dropped anchor in Santiago de Cuba on May 19, 1898. The Americans decided that Santiago, and the rest of eastern Cuba, should be their objective. About the only advice they accepted from García’s men was a landing site at Daiquiri. They did, however, send the general plenty of guns and ammunition, as well as one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand rations.

The American field commander, Brig. Gen. William Rufus Shafter, who weighed no less than three hundred pounds, went ashore with commanding Admiral William T. Sampson to confer with García at Daiquiri. García had deployed a thousand men who cleared the area of Spanish troops, enabling the fifteen thousand Americans of Shafter’s Fifth Army to get ashore without the loss of a man.

However, things did not go well when the leaders met. García’s gaunt, ragged Cubans appalled Shafter. He and his officers were especially shocked to discover that approximately ninety percent of the men in García’s ranks were black. In 1898 America was still a highly segregated society. Most of the Cuban blacks were ex-slaves. Although a royal decree had abolished slavery in Cuba in 1886, former slaves remained at the bottom of the island’s social and economic ladders.

Shafter equally dismayed García. Sweating profusely in Cuba’s summer heat, wearing a wool uniform like his men—in the rush to war, the army’s quartermaster department simply issued the uniforms it had in its warehouses— the overweight Shafter seemed to the Cuban general the worst possible choice for a field commander.

García’s disillusionment increased when he learned that Shafter had issued an order consigning Cuban troops to the role of laborers, carrying supplies, digging trenches, and improving roads for the Americans. García protested that his men were not “pack-mules.” He told Shafter they were weak and thin because they had not eaten adequate food for a long time. He insisted that the general give his men “worthier tasks.”

This protest did not come close to producing genuine cooperation. Instead, reporters—perhaps influenced by Shafter and other ranking officers—began writing vicious stories about García’s men. One Associated Press correspondent called them worthless. He described them “sitting around all day in the shade of their palm-thatched huts” smoking cigarettes and gorging on U.S. Army rations, while the Americans “build roads under the blazing sun.”

The Cubans participated in the handful of actions that the Americans fought in the advance on Santiago. But the rebels preferred to skirmish on the Spanish flanks and eschewed the frontal assaults that headstrong American commanders, such as Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, favored. In the July 1 attack on San Juan Hill and the nearby fortified village of El Caney, the major land battle of the war, the Cubans suffered only ten casualties. In an uncoordinated series of charges, the Americans lost 223 dead and 1,243 wounded.

General García and three thousand of his men had blocked a key road from Santiago, preventing reinforcements from reaching El Caney. However, García’s contribution to the victory went unappreciated by the American soldiers, who had done so much of the fighting and dying. After the two battles, novelist Stephen Crane, who was a correspondent for Pulitzer’s New York World, reported, “[O]fficers and men have the most lively contempt for the Cubans. They despise them.”

When the surviving Spaniards retreated into Santiago, General Shafter began a siege of the city. Soon panic seeped through the American ranks— not because of losses to the Spanish defenders—but because of disease. Malaria and dysentery began prostrating dozens of Americans each day, and yellow fever made its grim appearance, infecting three men. Shafter did not feel he had enough troops to storm the city, and he erupted with rage when a Spanish relief column slipped into Santiago on another road that General García was supposed to be blocking.

“If we intend to reduce Santiago, we will have to depend on our own troops and we will require twice the number we have,” wrote the jittery Shafter. Suffering from an attack of gout, he was so weak from heat exhaustion he could barely mount his horse.

On July 3, Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera solved Shafter’s problem. He led his fleet out of Santiago’s harbor, knowing he was heading for almost-certain destruction. Cervera was obeying orders issued by Captain General Ramón Blanco in Havana. Blanco seems to have imagined that the Spanish ships somehow could escape the Americans, who outnumbered them four to one. In a running fight that lasted several hours, the pursuing American cruisers and battleships rained shells on the wooden decks of the Spanish ships, setting them afire. Most sank; a few managed to stagger onto nearby beaches.

The next day, General Shafter called on the Spanish commander in Santiago, General Juan José Toral, to surrender. He refused, but further negotiations produced a truce on July 4, which permitted twenty thousand civilians to leave the city. On July 10, Shafter fought a brief artillery duel with Toral’s gunners, which ended with the Americans disabling all the Spanish cannons. Captain General Blanco wanted to fight to the last man, but the Spanish government in Madrid sent him a sharply worded cable, all but questioning his sanity. “The honor of your indomitable army” had already been saved at San Juan Hill, the minister of war wrote, and it had “won the admiration of the whole world.” The Spanish were determined to lose the war as quickly as possible, once their soldiers and sailors had demonstrated their courage.

By this time, the American army’s commander in chief, Nelson A. Miles, had reached Santiago with reinforcements. On July 14, Miles and Shafter conferred with General Toral and promised him the safe return of his troops to Spain. After exchanging cables with Madrid (thus ignoring pugnacious Captain General Blanco in Havana), Toral agreed to give up. On July 17, the two generals signed a surrender agreement at Shafter’s headquarters. Together they rode into Santiago, and the American flag soon flew from the governor’s palace in the captured city.

Neither General García nor any other Cuban officer or official participated in these negotiations. In a final insult, Shafter issued an order banning García and his men from entering the city. Spanish officials would continue to govern Santiago. Shafter rationalized this exclusion order by claiming that the Cubans would attack civilians and loot the city.

A bitter García sent Shafter an eloquent letter of protest. He denounced the continuation of Spanish rule in Santiago. He wanted to see officials elected by the Cuban people, not functionaries chosen by the queen of Spain. García condemned with special vehemence the idea that his men would massacre the surrendered Spaniards. He compared his soldiers to the American heroes of 1776. The Cubans too were fighting for the honor of their new country.

García announced that he was resigning as commander of the rebel army in eastern Cuba. In a simultaneous letter to General Gómez, he said resignation was the only way to protest the attitude of the American government. He would no longer “obey American orders,” he told Gómez.

García’s letter is famous in Cuban history, but most American historians have ignored it. U.S. newspapers published it a week after Santiago surrendered. The Cuban representatives in the United States were not happy about the general’s outburst. They were pursuing a policy of not offending the Americans, lest Congress repudiate the amendment to the war resolution guaranteeing Cuba’s eventual independence. They urged Americans not to confuse García with the Cuban people and insisted the general spoke only for himself.

In another month, Spain and the United States had signed an armistice, which stipulated that Madrid relinquished all claims to sovereignty over Cuba, but the United States imposed restrictions on the new Cuban government, and barred it from entering into alliances with other countries. Spain would transfer Puerto Rico and other Spanish islands in the West Indies, and the island of Guam in the Pacific, to the United States. The Americans would retain control of the city of Manila until the status of the Philippines was settled. Both countries would appoint commissioners to negotiate a final peace, with Cubans participating only as observers. The diplomats confirmed the major points of armistice, and Spain agreed to cede the Philippines to the United States for twenty million dollars.

Meanwhile, General García was enjoying a resurrection. The Americans worked hard to soothe his hurt feelings about being excluded from the surrender of Santiago. On September 23, 1898, U.S. Generals Leonard Wood and H.W. Lawton met García and some of his army at the outskirts of the city and escorted them through Santiago while thousands of Cubans cheered. In a speech, García called the United States “a grand nation” and declared it had every Cuban’s eternal gratitude.

Correspondents swarmed to interview the general, and he told one of them that there was, for the moment, no Cuban government in existence. He thus dismissed the claims of the Bartolome Maso civilian government, which he had long despised. This was what the Americans wanted to hear. They did not want a Cuban government controlled by the revolutionists.

The Cuban representatives in America, who were determined to cooperate with the United States, also dismissed Maso. They persuaded an impromptu Cuban Assembly, created by delegates from the army, to nominate a commission to go to Washington and speak for the nation. They named General García the commission’s chairman.

Early in December 1898, the commission met with President McKinley at the White House. By this time the Cubans were divided over a crucial issue—how much money they should ask from the United States to pay the Cuban army before they disbanded it. Some wanted to pay the soldiers monthly wages dating back to 1895, which would require a major loan. García thought this was a bad idea; it would cripple the new government with a heavy debt. He argued that token payments—enough to keep the soldiers eating until they found work—would be sufficient.

McKinley opened the discussion by announcing that a large loan was out of the question. A loan would imply recognition of the revolutionary government—something he was determined to avoid. But the United States was prepared to make a modest gift to Cuba’s soldiers. The president asked the commission to name a figure. “Three million dollars,” García said.

McKinley was delighted and shook García’s hand, ignoring protests from other members of the commission, who thought the figure was much too low. Out of this sum, the Cubans would have to pay other debts such as a two-million-dollar loan. This left very little money to pay the army.

At this point, Senator John T. Morgan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, roiled the diplomatic waters by announcing that he saw no reason why Congress had to abide by the amendment guaranteeing Cuban independence. Morgan had heretofore been a strong supporter of this principal revolutionary goal. García signed a vehement objection to this ominous change of heart. The Cubans threatened to cease all cooperation with the American occupying army.

This protest was General García’s last public act. The sudden change from Cuba’s warm climate to the wintry winds of the U.S. Northeast weakened him, and he caught a bad cold. At a dinner in his honor sponsored by General Miles, he was visibly ill. On December 11, 1898, he succumbed to pneumonia in a Washington, D.C., hotel. The Americans gave him an elaborate funeral, attended by Secretary of State John Hay and numerous generals and admirals, and temporarily buried him in Arlington National Cemetery. His body was later returned to Cuba, where he received an even more elaborate state funeral.

The New York Times lamented García’s death in an editorial, calling him “one of the natural leaders of the Cuban people.” More important, he had accepted the idea that the temporary “guardianship of the United States” was the best way to eventually achieve Cuban independence. Meanwhile, America’s leaders remained determined to govern Cuba through the U.S. Army until, in President McKinley’s words, there was “complete tranquility and a stable government inaugurated.”

The military occupation lasted from January 1899 until May 1902, when American soldiers withdrew, and Cuba formed an elected government representing many political viewpoints. The new assembly was forced to incorporate in its constitution the Platt Amendment, a congressional resolution giving the Americans the right to intervene at any time to maintain a stable government or protect life and property. Cuba could not enter into any treaty with a foreign government without American approval. Increasingly, Americans came to dominate the sugar, mining, real estate, construction, utilities, and tobacco industries.

It is unlikely that General García would have accepted these extensions of guardianship. They were the beginning of a decades-long troubled relationship with the island nation that left many Cubans ambivalent about the United States and eventually enabled dictator Fidel Castro to seize power in 1959.

Meanwhile, what had happened to the man who had brought General García the message from President McKinley? Then Lieutenant Colonel Rowan never commanded his regiment of volunteers in Cuba. He received other intelligence-gathering assignments during the fighting war. In October 1898, Rowan and Lieutenant Parker, who had earlier been sent to Puerto Rico, toured the entire island of Cuba on horseback, assessing its possibilities as a military base.

They also reported on the attitude of the Cuban people toward the United States. Rowan told a reporter that he had heard “nothing but gratitude expressed by the people for the part we played in gaining their freedom.” He added that all Cubans seemed to realize that eventually Cuba would become “part of the United States.” The remark is a good indication of what most American professional soldiers—and not a few civilians— were thinking at the time.

When a final peace with Spain was signed on December 10, 1898, the volunteers were disbanded, and Rowan was reduced from a colonel to a captain in the 19th Regiment of the regular army. He served with the 19th in the Philippines, where the United States found itself fighting independence-minded rebels for the next two years. Captain Rowan was wounded and received the Silver Star for bravery. In 1909 he resigned from the army and became a businessman in San Francisco, where he lived the rest of his long life. He died there in 1943 at the age of 85.

It took 22 years for the U.S. Army to decide Rowan deserved a Distinguished Service Cross for getting the message to—and from—General García. The award produced a flurry of newspaper stories recalling his mission. The retired warrior was more than a little pleased by the attention. “I’d do it again,” he told reporters. Later he wrote, “The press of the country applauded my work and Elbert Hubbard immortalized it. Thus, it would seem that ‘I had bought golden opinions from all sorts of people.’”

 

THOMAS FLEMING, an MHQ contributing editor, has written numerous histories, including Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge (HarperCollins, 2005).

Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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