Andrew Summers Rowan is a forgotten hero from a forgotten war. It was the war Spain declared on the United States in 1898, largely over the issue of Cuban independence. Ten weeks after it started, the war was over with the U.S. the victor. This 10-week dust-up occupies little if any real estate in contemporary history texts, and the heroes of the conflict have become obscure with the passage of time. Rowan’s role is worth retelling because it provides an example for anyone in a position of responsibility.
President McKinley needed to establish contact with Cuban rebel leader Calixto Garcia on the eve of the war to secure him as an ally in the coming conflict. Garcia was somewhere in Cuba and the only way to communicate with him was with a letter. A reliable, trustworthy courier was needed and found in the person of Andrew Summers Rowan, a young army officer. Rowan successfully infiltrated Cuba, eluded capture by the Spanish and established rapport with Garcia. Post-war analysis often credits U.S. naval or military superiority in the swift victory, but the few who know of Rowan’s role appreciate the significant part he played in securing victory. Rowan might have gone unnoticed if not for the work of Elbert Hubbard, a publisher who originally printed an untitled story about him in his magazine, Philistine, in March 1899.
Hubbard wrote the story in an hour, after his son had reminded him of Rowan’s heroism in the war. In a preface to the booklet edition of the story, Hubbard recounts that he had a trying day “endeavoring to train some rather delinquent villagers to abjure the comatose state and get radioactive.” I interpret this to mean he’d had a frustrating day dealing with unmotivated people. His son’s reminder of Rowan’s story created an epiphany, and when he picked up the pen it, the “thing leaped hot from my heart.” But afterwards Hubbard thought so little of the story that he ran it in the magazine without a heading.
After publication, reprint orders began trickling in, which wasn’t unusual. But the trickle became a flood, prompting Hubbard to ask which article triggered the interest. It was “the stuff about Garcia” he was told. Then a telegram arrived from George H. Daniels, of the New York Central Railroad, asking for a price on 1,000 copies of the Rowan article in pamphlet form. Hubbard didn’t have the capacity to fill the order so he granted permission to reprint. Daniels eventually printed and distributed half a million copies under the title, “A Message to Garcia.” One copy found its way into the hands of Prince Hilakoff, Director of Russian Railways, who had the booklet translated and given to every railroad employee in Russia. The booklet spread to Germany, France, Spain, Turkey, India and China. Japanese soldiers found the booklet on Russian prisoners during their war and had it translated, distributing it every Japanese government employee. Forty million copies of “A Message to Garcia” were printed and distributed, achieving a larger circulation than any other literary venture in the lifetime of the author, “thanks to a series of lucky accidents.”
Rowan’s example makes me rethink my definition of heroism. I tend to think of heroes as persons doing heroic things, and this is true. But Rowan shows us that reliability and resourcefulness in the performance of duty can create heroic outcomes. Hubbard identified these “heroic” traits in Rowan:
- Capacity for independent action
- Moral intelligence
- Strength of will
- A bias for action
These raw ingredients for heroism represent what every organization wants in its employees: leadership.
Hubbard says, “Civilization is one long, anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks shall be granted. He is wanted in every city, town and village – in every office, shop, store and factory. The world cries out for such; he is needed and needed badly – the man who can CARRY A MESSAGE TO GARCIA.”
Thanks to my friend and former student Collin Cory who shared Rowan’s story with me.