General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

Elbert Hubbard wrote his “literary trifle,” A Message to Garcia, one evening after supper, in a single hour, as an unnamed piece for his magazine, the Philistine:

It was on the Twenty-second of February, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-nine, Washington’s Birthday, and we were just going to press with the March “Philistine.” The thing leaped hot from my heart, written after a trying day, when I had been endeavoring to train some rather delinquent villagers to abjure the comatose state and get radio-active.

The immediate suggestion, though, came from a little argument over the teacups, when my boy Bert suggested that Rowan was the real hero of the Cuban War. Rowan had gone alone and done the thing — carried the message to Garcia.

It came to me like a flash! Yes, the boy is right, the hero is the man who does his work — who carries the message to Garcia. I got up from the table, and wrote “A Message to Garcia.” I thought so little of it that we ran it in the Magazine without a heading. The edition went out, and soon orders began to come for extra copies of the March “Philistine,” a dozen, fifty, a hundred; and when the American News Company ordered a thousand, I asked one of my helpers which article it was that had stirred up the cosmic dust.end-of-paragraph

“It’s the stuff about Garcia,” he said.

I love that 1899 style: get radio-active!

Hubbard goes on to claim that millions of copies have been printed and distributed. The story’s fame has definitely come and gone though:

The phrase “to carry a message to Garcia” was in common use for years to indicate taking initiative when carrying out a difficult assignment. Richard Nixon can be heard using it on the Watergate tapes during conversations with Henry Kissinger and John Ehrlichman. It has also been used as the title of children’s games, dramatized on radio shows, and was tailor-made for the Boy Scouts of America. A passage in the 1917 Boy Scouts Yearbook emphasizes the connection: “If you give [a Boy Scout] a ‘Message to Garcia’ you know that message will be delivered, although the mountains, the wilderness, the desert, the torrents, the broad lagoons or the sea itself, separate him from ‘Garcia.’”

The actual story about Rowan delivering a message to General Garcia is just a short preamble to Hubbard’s diatribe against half-hearted work:

In all this Cuban business there is one man stands out on the horizon of my memory like Mars at perihelion.

When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the Insurgents. Garcia was somewhere in the mountain fastnesses of Cuba — no one knew where. No mail or telegraph message could reach him. The President must secure his co-operation, and quickly. What to do!

Some one said to the President, “There is a fellow by the name of Rowan will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.”

Rowan was sent for and was given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How “the fellow by the name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oilskin 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 his letter to Garcia — are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail. The point that I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?” By the Eternal! there is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land. It is not book-learning 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 Garcia.”

General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias.

No man who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well-nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man — the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it.

Go ahead and read the whole thing for a dose of old-school American can-do spirit.

Message to Garcia Cover

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest, who described it as something he expected to find out about on Isegoria.)


  1. Graham says:

    There was also a Speedy Gonzales cartoon, “A Message to Gracias”:

    Made as late as 1964, it has a counter-revolutionary message.

  2. Thibodeaux says:

    My dad was a sales manager at a car dealership in the 1980s. He had a copy of this in his desk and used the phrase often.

  3. Isegoria says:

    The subtext of those Speedy Gonzales cartoons was totally lost on me as a kid — and they stopped showing them for some reason. Thanks for sharing that, Graham.

  4. Charles W Abbott says:

    The nice Letterpress look of the title page and the designation of East Aurora NY as the place of publishing prompts me to comment.

    East Aurora NY is worth visiting for the calm, quiet, Arts and Crafts vibe. It is quiet and serene and draws tourists as well as those interested in Letterpress and the various methods big among the Arts and Crafts devotees. A more modern prosaic townscape surrounds the older buildings, which have a landmark designation.

    There is a lot about Elbert Hubbard on Wikipedia.

    Starting in the 1990s or 2000s I’d seen “Message to Garcia” circulated as a long text file on the internet, but until stumbling upon East Aurora I had no idea he’d been based in Western New York. Nor that he had so many interests and projects.

  5. Graham says:


    A pleasure.

    I must have seen that many times in the 70s when Warner cartoons were in heavy Saturday morning circulation as part of packaged blocs on TV.

    I actually did read A Message to Garcia sometime in the 1990s. Almost certainly because I was finally looking for the basis of the joke in the cartoon title.

    Inevitably, when you posted your comments, the cartoon was still my first thought.

  6. Isegoria says:

    I watched plenty of Warner Bros. cartoons in my day, but I didn’t know any of their titles until I learned them as an adult: “What’s Opera, Doc?”, etc.

  7. Graham says:

    I probably noticed the titles on a sporadic basis at best as a kid, but I was still watching them on occasion when a little older. Cartoon channels on basic cable used to still carry the good, old stuff.

    It is possible that I had heard or read [National Review?] some reference to A Message to Garcia in close proximity to seeing that cartoon one more time and that spurred the recognition.

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