Major Archibald Willingham Butt (September 26, 1865 – April 15, 1912) was an influential military aide to U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Before becoming an aide to Roosevelt, Butt had pursued a career in journalism and served in the Spanish-American War. He died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
Archibald Willingham Butt was born in Augusta, Georgia
to Joshua Willingham Butt and Pamela Robertson Boggs. He was the grandson of General William R. Boggs
of the Confederate States Army
. The Butt family was prominent in Augusta, but had suffered financially during the American Civil War
. His father died when Butt was fourteen years old, and Butt was obliged to go to work to support his mother, sister, and younger brother. Thanks in part to contributions from the pastor of his church, and to his mother, who took a job as the school's librarian, Archibald Butt was able to attend the University of the South
, graduating in 1888. He was also initiated as a member to the Delta Tau Delta
fraternity during his college years. Butt began a career in journalism with his first position at the Louisville Courier-Journal
and thereafter became a reporter in Washington, D.C.
covering the Capitol for several Southern newspapers, including The Atlanta Constitution
and the Nashville Banner
. While Butt was working in Washington he became the first secretary for the American Embassy in Mexico
with former Senator Matt Ransom
In 1898, during the Spanish-American War
, Butt joined the army
as a lieutenant
. He served in the Philippines
from 1900 through 1904. While he was in the Philippines, he had a part in founding the Military Order of the Carabao
, a tongue-in-cheek spoof military fraternal organization still in operation today. In 1904, he was made Depot Quartermaster of Washington, D.C.
, where he met then-president Theodore Roosevelt
. In 1906 he was sent to Cuba
to as part of the pacification force. In 1908, the now Captain
Butt was recalled to Washington to serve as chief military aide to President Theodore Roosevelt
. When William Howard Taft
became President the following year, Butt stayed on in the same capacity. In 1911 Butt was promoted to the rank of Major
By 1912, Taft's first term was coming to an end and Roosevelt was known to be considering a run against him. Very close to both men and fiercely loyal, Butt was caught in the middle. As his health was deteriorating during this period, his friend Francis Davis Millet asked Taft to give him a leave of absence to recuperate before the presidential primaries began. Taft agreed and ordered Butt to go on vacation.
During his time serving with two presidents, Butt wrote almost daily letters to his sister-in-law Clara, of Augusta, GA. These letters are prized by modern historians as a key source of information on the more private events of these two presidencies, as well as invaluable insights into the respective characters of Roosevelt and Taft.
Accompanies President Taft to throw out baseball's first pitch
At the 1910 home opener of Major League Baseball
's Washington Senators
, the sight of the nation's 335-pound chief executive hurling a baseball toward the mound from his seat in American League Park delighted the spectators. "It was the first time in history," one scribe wrote, "that a President of the United States has opened a game of professional baseball or had attempted to rival the honors of Mathewson
, Mordecai Brown
, Walter Johnson
, et al."
"TAFT TOSSES BALL," announced The Washington Post. "Crowd Cheers President's Fine Delivery of the Sphere."
The tradition born that afternoon sputtered in the early years. Taft threw out the first ball again in 1911, attending the game with his close friend and military aide Archibald Butt, who had sat with the president in 1910, too. Then four days before the 1912 home opener, while he was returning from Europe -- from a vacation he had taken at Taft's urging -- Butt went down with the Titanic.
"Yesterday the president could not be present for obvious reasons," The Post reported after Opening Day.
Aboard the Titanic
In the early spring of 1912 Butt's health took a turn for the worse; urged to rest by both President Taft, he left on a six-week vacation to Europe. He was accompanied for part of his vacation by the American painter Francis Davis Millet
. Butt's only known official work during his vacation was a visit with Pope Pius X
, during which he delivered to the pontiff a personal message from Taft. Butt booked passage on the RMS Titanic
for his return to the United States. He boarded the Titanic
on April 10
; his friend Millet boarded the ship at Cherbourg
later that same day. Butt was playing cards on the night of April 14
in the first-class smoking room when the Titanic
struck an iceberg. The ship sank at 2:20 AM the next morning.
Major Butt's actions on board the ship while it was sinking are largely unverified, but many accounts of a typically sensationalist nature were published by newspapers after the disaster. According to some accounts, Titanic captain Edward J. Smith informed Butt that the "ship was doomed" and that "lifeboats were being readied." Butt immediately began acting as another officer of the ship, herding women and children into the lifeboats. One account tells of Butt preventing desperate steerage passengers trying to escape. Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember disagrees with claims that Butt acted like an officer, claiming he was more likely quietly observing the ship's evacuation. Butt died during the sinking; his remains, if found, were not identified.
As Archibald Butt's remains were not recovered, a cenotaph
was erected in Section 3 of Arlington National Cemetery
. On May 2
, a memorial service was held in the Butt family home with 1,500 mourners, including President Taft, attending. Taft spoke at the service where he said,
- "If Archie could have selected a time to die he would have chosen the one God gave him. His life was spent in self–sacrifice, serving others. His forgetfulness of self had become a part of his nature. Everybody who knew him called him Archie. I couldn't prepare anything in advance to say here. I tried, but couldn't. He was too near me. He was loyal to my predecessor, Mr. Roosevelt, who selected him to be military aide, and to me he had become as a son or a brother."
In 1913 The Millet-Butt Memorial Fountain was constructed near the White House in the Ellipse. In Augusta, Georgia, the Butt Memorial Bridge was dedicated in 1914 by Taft.
The Washington National Cathedral contains a large plaque dedicated to Major Archibald Butt. It can be found on the wall in the Museum Store.
Butt appears and plays a significant role in Jack Finney
's time travel novel, From Time to Time
. In it, Butt was sent to Europe by President Taft and former President Roosevelt in an effort to stave off World War I. In Europe, he apparently gets the necessary assurances to make a European war impossible. However, even when informed of the ship's approaching sinking by the time travelling protagonist, he refuses to save himself and his mission when women and children will perish. His mission fails with his death.
- Lynch, Don (1993). Titanic: An Illustrated History. Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-8147-X.
- Rutman, Sharon and Jay Stevenson (1998). The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Titanic. Alpha Books. ISBN 0-02-862712-1.
- Lord, Walter (1955). A Night to Remember. Page 78. Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-27827-4.
- Archibald Willingham Butt: Major, United States Army. Arlington National Cemetery Website. .