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Titanic Victims - Archibald Willingham - Aka Archie Butt
Detail: Lieutenant Archibald Butt in 1909. Image: Library of Congress.
April 12, 2020

Titanic Victims – Archibald Willingham Butt

If the presidential election of 1912 was not the most dramatic in American history, it was certainly one of the most personal. President William Taft, the incumbent Republican, sought reelection against the Democratic Woodrow Wilson, as well as Theodore Roosevelt who freshly formed the Progressive/Bull Moose party. Roosevelt had mentored Taft and chose him as his presidential successor, only to become displeased when Taft began to assert himself. By the middle of Taft’s term in office, the relationship between Roosevelt and Taft was rapidly deteriorating, with both men publicly attacking the other’s character as well as policies. In 1912, Roosevelt put the nail in the coffin of the friendship, and ran against Taft.

Archibald Willingham Butt, known as Archie Butt, a man who served as an aid to both Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, and whom both considered a dear friend, bore the brunt of much of the row between the two men. Both Taft and Roosevelt confided in him about the souring of their friendship. By 1910, Butt was exasperated, and confided to his sister-in-law that the tension between Roosevelt and Taft caused him to throw up his hands. “They are now apart and how they will keep from wrecking the country between them I scarcely see. Possibly, it may land a good Democrat in the White House which may bring back sanity to the people….Damn politics anyhow.”[1] Ultimately, Roosevelt’s party split the Republican vote and handed the White House to Wilson – the first Democrat since Grover Cleveland had won his second non-consecutive term nineteen years earlier, in 1893. In other words, Archie’s prediction had been spot-on. 

Butt had worked his way up from a poor, unprivileged life in Augusta, Georgia, to become one of the most beloved figures in Washington, D.C.. Born in 1865, less than half a year after the Civil War ended, Butt had the military in his blood. His grandfather (also Archibald Butt) had served in the Revolutionary war, during which Archie’s great-grandfather also served as a lieutenant. His uncle was Confederate General William R. Boggs. When Archie was fourteen, his father passed away, and Archie had to work to support his family. Butt eventually became a journalist, and in 1895 was appointed as the first Secretary to the US Ambassador to Mexico, where he continued to write for several American newspapers. At the height of his journalistic career, the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898. Feeling duty-bound and proud of his military pedigree, Butt enlisted in the US Volunteers and was commissioned as a lieutenant. Butt was a quartermaster and established himself as a capable logistician, eventually joining the US army and serving in the Philippines, Washington, D.C., and Cuba.

President Theodore Roosevelt had also served in the Spanish-American  War, and his exploits as head of the Rough Riders had practically catapulted him into the presidency. Roosevelt had read several of Butt’s military reports concerning the husbandry of animals in the tropics, and had been so impressed that he asked Butt to become his military aide in 1908.[2]

Butt managed to keep up with Roosevelt’s rigorous physical activities, and became not only a valued adviser, but a cherished friend. The following year, Taft succeeded Roosevelt, and Archie  was asked to stay on as an aide to the President. In 1911, Butt was promoted to Major in the Quartermaster Corps.

Seven months before that fateful election, on March 3, 1912, Archie Butt, at the behest of President Taft, travelled to Europe for a few weeks. According to some, Taft was concerned for Butt’s health. According to others, Archie had needed a break to decide between which of his two friends he would support for president in a few short months. Butt’s sense of duty compelled him to cancel the plans, and only at Taft’s insistence that he go, did he depart. Archie, cognizant of the impending elections wrote that he was “hesitating about the wisdom of going,” and that he couldn’t “bear to leave him just now. I can see he hates to see me go and I feel like a quitter in going.” Less than a week after he expressed his hesitations, Archie set off with his companion, the artist Frances Millet, with whom he shared a mansion in DC’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

After six weeks in Europe, Butt boarded the Titanic in Southampton and Millet met him aboard in Cherbourg later that day. The pair planned to return to their Washington home, where Butt had political business waiting for him, and Millet, as the Vice Chairman of the American Commission of Fine Arts, was due to help finalize the Lincoln Memorial design phase.  Both Butt and Millet perished on the ship, the only known US officials among the Titanic victims to do so. Butt was probably the single most widely mourned victim on the Titanic, as he was one of the most beloved political figures in the US at the time. The 1997 film Titanic, which received critical acclaim for its painstaking historical accuracy, depicted numerous famous people, such as John Jacob Astor, but Archie Butt is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, some accounts have Astor and Butt last seen together before the ship went down. 

Roosevelt mourned Archie’s death, saying “Major Butt was the highest type of officer and gentleman. He met his end as an officer and gentleman should, giving up his own life that others might be saved. I and my family all loved him sincerely.”[5] President Taft was devastated. He felt Butt’s loss as if he had lost a younger brother. The following month, at Butt’s memorial service in Augusta, Taft nearly broke down twice, cutting his remarks short. 

In October of 1913, a fountain was dedicated to both Butt and Millet – an unusual and progressive monument in the “don’t ask don’t tell” Gilded Age. As neither of Archie’s friends were elected president the year before, the fountain was dedicated without ceremony. 

Two years to the day of the Titanic disaster, in April of 1914, Taft dedicated the Archie Butt Memorial Bridge in Butt’s hometown of Augusta. The bridge was the first memorial for the Titanic disaster, and it remains the only one in the state of Georgia. Taft, who used to golf with Butt regularly, stayed at a golf resort in Augusta ahead of the ceremony. He eulogized Butt as a hero (see image and transcription below.)

Taft’s remarks certainly encapsulated Butt’s gallant side, and the way nineteenth century historical figures tend to be remembered. And indeed, there can be very little remembering of Roosevelt or Taft without remembering their Presidential aide Butt: every definitive biography of either president relies heavily on Archie Butt’s letters.[6] Departing from Taft’s rather formulaic description of Butt, Ross Snellings, founder of the The Butt Memorial Bridge Legal Defense Fund, reminds us how Archie’s friends would have remembered him:  “When they turned on the lights [on the Butt Memorial Bridge] for the first time, they remarked ‘Well, it’s going to be just like old Archie: lit every night.’”

Transcript:

Taft’s Tribute to Butt.

Welcomed Hero’s Death on Titanic, Ex-President Says at Memorial.

Augusta. Ga. April 15. – Simple but impressive exercises attended the dedication here to-day of the Butt Memorial Bridge, erected as a tribute to the memory of the late Archibald Willingham Butt, aid to Presidents Taft and Roosevelt, who perished in the Titanic disaster on April 14, 1912. Ex-President Taft, a delegation of Masons, and member of the Butt Memorial association participated in the services. Mr. Taft, the first speaker said:

“I like to think of him as the best type of the new South. Archie went to his death in a great disaster. We do not know the details, but we know that women and children were rescued and he went down with the ship. When I heard that many were lost I know that Archie would never return. He would have selected no other death has he been given a choice.”

 

 

[1] Skipper, John C. Roosevelt’s Revolt: The 1912 Republican Convention and the Launch of the Bull Moose Party. McFarland, 2018, p. 6

[2] https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1912/04/16/100530255.pdf

[3] Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Military Aide, Vol. 1, Doubleday Doran and Co., 1930, p. 851

[4] https://blogs.weta.org/boundarystones/2018/02/14/sympathy-mind-which-most-unusual-two-men-titanic

[5] Buffalo Evening News Buffalo, New York 20 Apr 1912, Sat  • Page 8

[6] Wilkes, Jr., Donald E. “On the Titanic: Archie Butt.” The Athens Observer. April 28-May 4, 1994, p. 6. Accessed on 9 March, 2020

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