Col. Rowan Tells "How I Got the Message to General Garcia"

Weston Democrat
July 1929

Just 31 years ago on April 24, Andrew summers [sic] Rowan, a native of Union, Monroe county, West Virginia, landed in Cuba carrying his famous message to Garcia. For the anniversary this year Co.. [sic] Rowan himself wrote his own account of the remarkable trip which later earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and the personal congratulations of President McKinley. His article which was written for a Washington newspaper, is published below:

"Get that message to Garcia." This was the terse command given me by Col. Arthur Wagner, head of the Bureau of Military Intelligence of the United States Government, early in 1898. The United States was facing a war with Spain. Col. Wagner had just come from a conference with President McKinley. The President, worn and wearied with the prospect of war, realized the necessity of information regarding the Spanish forces in Cuba and the condition of the insurgent Cuban forces.

"Where can I find a man who will carry a message to Garcia?" President McKinley had asked Col. Wagner.

"There is a young lieutenant named Rowan here in Washington who will take it."

This was Col. Wagner's immediate reply to the President's appeal, and the President, having confidence in Col. Wagner's judgment, gave an order of two words which sent me on my way, on the most perilous journey I had ever undertaken, a journey fraught with danger at every turn, danger of death at the hands of a Spanish firing squad.

"Send him!"

This was the President's command.

Receiving an invitation from Col. Wagner to lunch with him at the Army and Navy club that day, we had no more than been seated when he said: "when does the next boat leave for Jamaica?"

He was a noted joker, and I believed then that he was trying to put something over on me. However, I looked up the sailing time and informed him.

"Can you sail on that boat?" asked the colonel. I quickly said "Yes," still believing that he was indulging in some pleasantry. However, with his next statement I realized that he was in deadly earnest.

"Then prepare to take that boat," said he. "You have been selected by President McKinley to carry a message to Garcia. He is somewhere in the eastern part of Cuba. Your duty will be to find him and learn the military situation in Cuba in so far as he knows. Your success and in all probability the outcome of a possible war with Spain will depend upon you. Leave at midnight tonight. Good-bye and good luck, but - get that message to Garcia."

The trip to the south by boat was without untoward incident, and I arrived in Jamaica at 9 o'clock in the morning, cabled my arrival, and on April 23, the day on which the United States had set as the last moment for the withdrawal of the Spanish forces from Cuba, and the navy from Cuban waters. I received cabled orders to "join Garcia as soon as possible."

This was much more easily said than done, as I realized more and more during each mile of progress for the next few days.

Through Kingston's (Jamaica) streets, through the suburbs and out into the open country, I was carried at breakneck speed in a closed carriage. My driver refused to talk to me, and apparently did not relish being talked to.

At the end of several hours and close to the edge of a dense jungle growth the carriage stopped. A man opened the front door, I stepped out at his invitation and was immediately hustled into another carriage.

But few words were spoken and again we were on our way, racing along the road for hours until we halted near a railroad station. Here I was given food while horses were changed, and in a few moments we were off again, racing through the darkness at top speed.

The sudden blowing of a whistle brought me to attention, and I had misgivings, as the carriage was surrounded by formidably armed men. I was escorted to a house where supper awaited me. Then followed a rest for an hour and we resumed our journey. On this leg of the trip I was accompanied by a pilot assigned to me at the last stopping place. His name was Sablo, and he had been detailed to see that I reached Garcia.

At the end of a seven mile drive we got out, treked [sic] through a mile-long field and emerged on the banks of a small bay. A short distance off shore was a fishing boat. After a number of signals had been exchanged I was lifted bodily to the back of a stalwart sailor, who waded out to the boat with me.

I had now completed the first leg of my journey.

The boat was camouflaged with false cargo in the nature of bundles, the value of which I was soon to learn. As we rowed toward the had-lands, I realized I was facing danger of two different kinds. Caught within the 3-mile limit of Jamaica coast, I could have been seized for violation of neutrality. Caught without the 3-mile limit, I could have been seized by the Spaniards and would have undoubtedly forfeited my life as a spy, but as I told myself, "I must succeed - I must reach Garcia and deliver my message."

The Caribbean Sea, we knew, was patrolled by Spanish light-draft vessels armed with pivot guns, and their crews with Mauser rifles. And I was soon to learn the value of the camouflaged cargo.

Early in the morning one of the fighters bore down upon us. At a command from my orderly who was at the helm, our sail was dropped, and all on board save he lay flat among the "cargo" below the gunwales. "They may think I am a lone fisherman," Sablo said, cooly, and this proved correct.

"How are the fish biting?" was the hail of a young commander of the boat.

"They are no biting well this morning," replied Sablo, and we were relieved when the cruiser sailed on about its business of patrolling.

In the early hours of the morning we landed on Cuban soil, were assisted by a handful of ragged Cubans, who had assembled at a signal, and now the second leg of my journey was complete.

Of the trip through miles of Cuban territory, beset on all sides by dangers there is little to say except that death lurked at every turn. Scores of times we were forced to exercise the utmost strategy to keep from being discovered by Spanish troops. One incident alone stands out particularly in my mind when only my suspicions changed almost certain defeat and death into victory.

One evening when we were camped for the night, several strangers appeared in camp. They declared they were Spanish soldiers, had been abused, were underfed and forced to go through too great hardship for even their shallow patriotism. I advised Sablo to question them closely. He did and my suspicion that they were spies was borne out during that night, when I was almost assassinated. Two of these "deserters" decided to leave the camp, get back to the Spanish lines and give the information that an American officer was being escorted across Cuba.

I was suddenly awakened by a shot and leaped from my hammock just in time to avoid a dagger meant for my heart, in the hands of one of these men, who was leaning over me. He was quickly dispatched by a machete in the hands of a Cuban. His companion, who attempted to get away was shot dead by a sentinel.

After an arduous journey, with danger everywhere, I was at last escorted into the presence of Gen. Garcia, and here the only amusing incident of the journey transpired. In translating my letters from the Cuban Junta, located in Jamaica, a mistake had been made. This caused considerable delay in my meeting with the general, who laughingly explained it to me.

While the letters had designated me as "a man of confidence" the translator had made me a "confidence man."

Hearing me through with my message from President McKinley, Gen. Garcia, who was a man of quick thought and action, immediately decided, although he gave me all necessary information, that he would send three officers with me to the United States. These men would fully outline the needs of the Cuban insurgents, and, although I was in a state of mental and physical exhaustion, having been on the way nine days, Gen. Garcia asked me if I could start on the return trip that day and I quickly replied that I could.

I had delivered my message to Garcia and what else mattered!

After a two-hour rest we started on the perilous journey back to the United States. And now, our country having declared war on Spain, we were in more danger than ever before. By land, and thence, by sea, we finally arrived at New Providence Island and were promptly detained at Hog Island quarantine station. However, I got word to the American Consul and on May 11 we went aboard the schooner Fearless. May 13 we arrived at Key West, took a train that night for Tampa and thence on to Washington.

I made my report to Secretary of War Russell R. Alger, who sent me to Gen. Nelson A. Miles. Later Gen. Miles wrote to the Secretary of War as follows:

"I recommend that First Lieut. Andrew S. Rowan, Nineteenth United States Infantry, be made a lieutenant colonel in one of the regiments of immunes. Lieut[.] Rowan made a journey across Cuba, was with the insurgent army with Gen. Garcia and brought most important and valuable information to the Government. This was a most perilous undertaking, and, in my judgment, Lieut. Rowan performed an act of heroism and cool daring that has rarely been excelled in the annals of warfare."

Within a few days I was summoned to a meeting of the President and his Cabinet and received personal congra[t]ulations from President McKinley.

"Colonel," he said simply, "you have performed a very brave deed."

These words from our martyred President compensated me for all the danger and the physical and mental suffering which I had experienced throughout my exploit.

Later the War Department acknowledged its appreciation of the value of my work by presenting me with the D. S. C. and the following citation:

"At the outbreak of the Spanish-American campaign, Lieut. Rowan, under disguise, entered the enemy lines in Oriente, crossed the island of Cuba, and not only succeeded in delivering a message to Gen. Garcia, but secured secret information relative to existing military conditions in that region of such great value that it had an important bearing on the quick ending of the struggle and the complete success of the United States Army."

In addition, 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."

Military and Wartime