It’s July 26, 1909, and President William Howard Taft (left) has arrived in his superb White Motor Company Model M Steamer at Fort Myer, just across the Potomac from Washington, to watch the Wright brothers’ preparations for the trial flight of their Military Flyer. On the following day, Orville Wright would make a record flight of over an hour, covering approximately 40 miles.
Sitting next to the President is Senator Jonathan Bourne Jr. of Oregon. Taft’s military aide and good friend, Captain Archibald Willingham Butt, is standing in the car. Born in Augusta, Georgia in 1865, Archie (as everyone called him) Butt began his career as a reporter, then served as first secretary to the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. In 1900, Archie received a commission in the U.S. Army. He served in the Philippines for four years, and as Depot Quartermaster in Washington D.C. he met President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. In 1908, Archie was appointed Roosevelt’s chief military aide, and when Taft succeeded Roosevelt as president in 1909, Archie remained at his post. One of his duties was to stand by when Taft became the first president to throw the ceremonial first pitch at a Washington Senators’ game in 1910. In 1911, Butt was promoted to the rank of major.
Loyal to both T.R. and Taft, Archie Butt was caught in the middle of the growing feud that would lead to Roosevelt’s run for the presidency against Taft in 1912. Worn out and in declining health, Archie requested a leave of absence. President Taft granted it, and in the early spring of 1912, Archie left for a six week European tour, accompanied by his longtime companion, Washington artist Francis Davis Millet.
For his return trip, Archie booked passage in first class aboard RMS Titanic for its first Atlantic crossing (ticket number 113050; fare, £26 11s; cabin number B38) and boarded the ship at Southampton on April 10. On the night of the 14th, he dined with Titanic’s captain, Edward J. Smith, and was playing cards when the ship struck an iceberg at 11:40. There are several stories of Archie Butt’s actions before Titanic sank at 2:20 in the morning of April 15 – he was said to have assisted women and children into the lifeboats; one survivor, Irene Harris, contributed a sensational account:
“He became as one in supreme command. You would have thought he was at a White House reception, so cool and calm was he. When the time came he was a man to be feared. In one of the earlier boats fifty women, it seemed, were about to be lowered when a man suddenly panic stricken ran to the stern of it. Maj. Butt shot one arm out caught him by the neck and jerked him backward like a pillow. His head cracked against a rail and he was stunned. ‘Sorry,’ said Maj. Butt, ‘women will be attended to first or I’ll break every damned bone in your body.’… Maj. Butt escorted me to a seat in the bow… he helped me find a space, arranged my clothing about me, stood erect, doffed his hat and smiled and said ‘Good-by.’ And then he stepped back to the deck, already awash. As we rowed away we looked back, and the last I saw of him he was smiling and waving his hand to me.
Major Archibald Butt and his friend Frank Millet both drowned when Titanic went down; Archie’s body was not recovered.
President Taft was grief-stricken when he heard the news. At a memorial service for Archie back in Augusta, 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, Archie’s friends dedicated a fountain to him and to Frank Millet – the Butt-Millet Fountain still stands on the Ellipse, not far from the White House.
Allan Janus is a museum specialist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Division