Major Archie Butt Had a Gift for Friendship, Even on the Titanic
Major Archibald Butts’ friends, including President William Howard Taft, mourned his loss on the Titanic and they never forgot their genial, jovial, friend.
On March 2, 1912, Major Archibald Willingham Butt, Archie to his host of friends and Commander-in-Chief President William Howard Taft, put on his new suit of clothes, an event reported in the New York Times of Sunday, March 3, 1912. He had promised President Taft that he would sail to Europe on the North German Lloyd liner Berlin, for a combination vacation and special envoy mission.
A tall, handsome Southerner with a loyal and jovial nature, Major Archibald Butt made friends wherever he traveled, and he had traveled many places in his career.
Major Archie Butt Wears his New Suit to Europe
According to the New York Times story, Major Butt wore a copper colored Norfolk jacket fastened by big ball shaped red porcelain buttons, a lavender tie, and a tall bay wing collar. His trousers were made of the same material as his coat. A derby hat with a broad, flat brim and patent leather shoes with white tops completed his ensemble. He wrote a bouquet of lilies in his buttonhole and he tucked a cambric handkerchief up his left sleeve. Major Butt wasn’t wearing an overcoat and he shivered as the wind whipped his jacket and tie and swept the deck of the Berlin.
One of the reporters asked Major Butt if the rumor about his engagement to Miss Dorothy Williams of Washington, D.C. were true. The New York Times story quoted him as saying rather wistfully, "I wish it were. This bachelorhood is a miserable existence. I have distress signals flying at the fore, and will refuse no reasonable offer to enter the matrimonial field. I’ll do the best I can, and if this leap year gets away before I get a wife I shall feel very much discouraged."
Major Butt’s friend Francis D. Millet, the painter, accompanied him on his trip to Rome. Major Butt carried a special message from President Taft to Pope Pius X, and he had a scheduled visit with King Victor Emmanuel. He and Francis Millet booked return passage on the Titanic.
Archie Butt Possesses a Gift for Writing and Friendship
Born September 26, 1865, into a prominent Augusta, Georgia, family, Archibald Willingham Butt enjoyed the advantages of a good family. He graduated from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Before the Spanish American War in 1898, he worked as the Washington correspondent for several newspapers, including The Louisville Post, The Atlanta Constitution, The Nashville Banner, The Augusta Chronicle, and The Savannah News.
Archibald Butt served as First Secretary of the United States legation at the City of Mexico for a time, under Minister Matt W. Ransom. During his years of government service and newspaper writing, he also wrote for magazines and published several novels, using his life in Mexico for a foundation.
After Archibald Butt joined the United States Army, he was commissioned as a Captain in the Quartermaster’s Department and shipped to the Philippines on the transport Sumner by the way of Suez. He called upon some of the friends he had made in the military to get his orders changed and he sailed instead on the Dix from San Francisco with a cargo of 500 mules.
The Army orders said to unload the mules and rest them at Honolulu, but instead Captain Butt kept them onboard because he found the feed and stable charges outrageous. If the mules had died, Captain Butt would have been court-martialed, but he delivered them all safely. In fact, they were in better shape than they had been when they were loaded onboard.
While he served in the Philippines, Captain Butt continued to write, and some of his reports about caring for animals in the Tropics attracted the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. Eventually, President Roosevelt asked Captain Butt to become one of his military aides.
Captain Butt managed to keep up with President Roosevelt’s rigorous life style and climbed Rock Creek Canyon alongside President Roosevelt and his horse Prince Henry. Archie Butt kept up the same pace socially as well. He set a record for remembering the names and introducing 1,280 people an hour at White House Receptions. He knew everybody and everybody knew and liked him.
Captain Butt Enjoys Baseball and is Caught in the Middle of the Roosevelt and Taft Fight
Theodore Roosevelt left the White House in 1908, and when William Howard Taft assumed the presidency in March 1909, Captain Butt stayed on as his aide.
In 1910, President William Howard Taft set a baseball record by becoming the first American President to throw out the opening pitch with Captain Archie Buttt, his aide, sitting beside him in the stands at the opening game of the Washington Senators. The Washington Post sported the headline: "Taft Tosses Ball. Crowd Cheers President’s Fine Delivery of the Sphere." President Taft and Major Butt attended the 1911 opening day and Taft again threw out the ball with Major Butt sitting beside him.
In 1911, the Army promoted Captain Butt to Major, but he didn’t have much time to enjoy his promotion. President Taft’s first term wound down in 1912, and former President Roosevelt seriously considered a run against him. Major Butt had worked very closely with both presidents and felt a fierce loyalty for both of them. He was caught between two politically angry men, both of them his friend.
Finally, Major Butt's friend, Francis Millet, asked President Taft to give Major Butt a leave of absence to recharge his energies before the presidential primaries. President Taft gave him a message for the Pope and orders to enjoy springtime in Rome.
Major Butt Aboard The Titanic
Major Archie Butt boarded the Titanic at Southampton, England, on Wednesday, April 10, 1912, and his friend Francis Millet came aboard at Cherbourg, France, later in the day. On Sunday, April 14, 1912, Major Butt and some of his new friends including Arthur Ryerson, were playing cards in the first class smoking room when the Titanic struck an iceberg.
Sensational accounts of the sinking of the Titanic have Major Butt acting as a ship’s officer, shepherding women and children into the lifeboats. In The Titanic: End of a Dream, Wyn Craig Wade described Titanic survivor Mrs. Dan Marvin’s version of Major Butt’s actions as the Titanic sank. She said that Major Butt stood on the deck "with an iron bar in his hand beating back the frenzied crowd who were attempting to overcrowd the lifeboats."
Wade quoted another Titanic survivor, H.H. Haven, as describing Major Butt standing on the deck with a crowd of men to the last and going down with the ship.
Walter Lord wrote in A Night to Remember, that Major Butt didn’t take charge, but instead leaned against the boat deck rail with Clarence Moore, Arthur Ryerson, and Walter Douglas. They were silent and Major Butt had no pistol and took no active part in loading people into the life boats, despite later stories that he practically took charge.
The Titanic sank on Sunday April 14, 1912, at 2:20 a.m., with a loss of over 1,500 lives. The body of Major Archibald Butt was never found, but he has a memorial stone in Arlington National Cemetery.
President William Howard Taft is Stunned
When he heard that the Titanic had gone down, President Taft hurried to the telegraph room at the White House and frantically read the newspaper bulletins. He also sent a message to the telephone operators at the War and Navy Departments to immediately forward any information about Major Butt. President Taft also sent a telegram to the offices of the White Star Line asking them for information about his aide and close friend.
By Friday, April 19, 1912, President Taft had sorrowfully accepted the fact that Major Butt and the Titanic were gone, and he talked to newsmen gathered at the White House. The Trenton Evening Times of April 19, 1912, reported him as saying, "I never had any idea that Archie was saved at all. As soon as I heard that 1,200 people went down I knew he went too. He was a soldier and always on deck where he belonged."
President William Howard Taft and countless other friends mourned Major Archibald Butt, gallantly setting out for Europe in his new suit, hopefully searching for the right woman to marry, and absent from the stands at the opening game of the 1912 Washington Senators baseball season.
Lord, Walter. A Night To Remember. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1955.
Lynch, Don. Titanic: An Illustrated History. Hyperion, 1993.
Wade, Wyn Craig. The Titanic: End of A Dream. Penguin Books, 1986.