Archie Butt, the Augusta native who served as military aide to two U.S. presidents, had concerns about the ship taking him across the Atlantic in the spring of 1912. But it wasn’t the RMS Titanic.
This was the SS Berlin, a 3-year-old steamship that would take him as an emissary to the Vatican on behalf of President William Howard Taft. Butt was so certain the ship would sink en route that he wrote in one of his last letters: “Don’t forget that all my papers are in the storage warehouse, and if the old ship goes down you will find my affairs in shipshape condition.”
Traveling home a month later aboard the White Star line’s “virtually unsinkable” luxury liner seemed a fitting means of travel for the man who planned all the galas and soirees at the White House. Butt, a major who padded his epaulets with enough gold braid to suit an admiral, was much more at home aboard the Titanic, which boasted the first swimming pool aboard a ship and a Parisian cafe with French waiters.
But if he was a peacock in appearance – he left for Italy wearing a lavender tie and red porcelain buttons – Butt, 46, was a hawk in character. He had to keep pace with Teddy Roosevelt, who Butt said “swims and plays tennis merely for the pleasure of straining his muscles and shouting.”
Unlike Roosevelt, Taft’s most strenuous activity usually occurred at the dinner table, but serving as an unofficial bodyguard for him carried its own challenges. Butt related the difficulty of Christmas shopping incognito with Taft in a diary entry dated Dec. 25, 1909. When one man extended his hand to the president, Butt gave him a punch in the gut and hissed “fool” under his breath.
“Oh, I only whispered to him not to begin to shake hands, that it would start the whole store doing it,” Butt told the president later.
A humble start
In the stories of the final hours of the Titanic, Butt stayed true to character. It’s said, for instance, that he was the one who ordered women and children to evacuate first and that he threatened to “break the bones” of a man caught sneaking onto a life boat.
At his memorial service May 2, two years before a bridge was dedicated in Butt’s honor over the Augusta Canal at 15th Street, retired Confederate Col. Joseph B. Cumming was reluctant to embellish the already growing myth of the Titanic and Butt’s life.
But he believed the eyewitness accounts because they were in character with Butt’s life.
“We know that is true because it is so like Archie,” Cumming said.
Born Archibald Willingham Butt on Sept. 26, 1865, he was the third son of Joshua and Pamela Butt, of 194 Reynolds St. The Butts were one of the oldest Colonial families in Georgia, but the Civil War had devastated its fortunes.
Butt’s father died when he was 14, so he worked odd jobs around Augusta to help make ends meet. An arrangement with the rector at Church of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church on Walton Way allowed him to enroll in the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
Students said Butt was not fond of the military training at the school, but he did have a flair for newspaper reporting. Several jobs at newspapers around the South, including the Macon Telegraph, led him to Washington, D.C., where he served as a correspondent.
Exposure to the nation’s movers and shakers landed him a position as assistant to the ambassador to Mexico. He traveled to the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and received a commission as captain in the regular Army while in Manila. Butt was in Cuba in 1908 when Roosevelt brought him back to the capital to be his military aide.
On paper, Butt was responsible for handling the social calendar of the president, but he was also a close confidant of both presidents. Speaking at Butt’s memorial service, Taft said “the duty of an aide to a president is very hard to fill. It calls for great self-sacrifice. … The aide has to do the best he can to contribute to the president’s peace of mind, and that is a burden … that no one knows the weight of unless he has been an aide.”
The strain was taking its toll by 1912. Butt was suffering from exhaustion, not just from his duties, but also from the growing divide between his two friends. Taft was Roosevelt’s hand-picked Republican successor, but four years later Taft
was calling his mentor a “dangerous egotist” and Roosevelt dismissed Taft as a “fathead.”
Butt’s last letters show he was reluctant to leave Taft at such a critical juncture: “I lay awake a long time last night, trying to make up my mind as to what my duty was in regard to this trip to Italy. … It seems to me that the President will need every intime near at hand now.”
Butt canceled his plans four days before his departure, but rescheduled his journey at Taft’s insistence. On March 3, he left Hoboken, N.J., for Naples, Italy. By his side was Frank Millet, the American painter and Butt’s roommate.
Butt delivered his message to Pope Pius X, though how he spent the rest of his tour in Europe is largely unrecorded. He mailed a postcard from Gibraltar on March 11 to fellow Masons, sending “best wishes to those whose friendship is firmer than this rock.”
At some point Millet and Butt split ways, then reunited April 10 aboard the Titanic. They had separate quarters; Butt needed room for seven trunks of clothes and holiday purchases.
Aboard the ship
First-class passengers such as Butt and Millet had plenty of entertainment options aboard the Titanic. At 882 feet long, the Titanic was a little longer than the distance between 9th and 10th streets in downtown Augusta and the height of the Lamar building. Butt had four dining rooms to choose from, along with a saltwater pool (admittance was one shilling), a Turkish bath, a gym and libraries.
For companionship, Butt could turn to the first-class passenger list slipped under his door and find his name beside the Astors, British fashion designer Lady Duff Gordon, American businessman Benjamin Guggenheim and silent film star Dorothy Gibson, to name a few.
The evening of April 14 was spent in typical fashion. Survivor Col. Archibald Gracie recalled that after dinner they retired to the palm room to sip coffee and listen to the “delightful” music of the Titanic’s band. From the palm room they drifted over to the smoking room, where Gracie discussed politics with Butt and Millet.
Butt, Millet and various scions of American industry were still smoking, playing bridge and swapping stories when Gracie slipped away for an early bed time. They were still there just before midnight when the Titanic struck an iceberg on its starboard side traveling at full steam – roughly 24 mph. Capt. Edward Smith had received warnings about the icebergs collecting in the North Atlantic but said he could not “imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
The crash tore deep gashes under the Titanic’s waterline, eventually flooding the ship’s waterproof containers. At the official British inquiry into the disaster, it was found that the Titanic carried 16 lifeboats and 4 collapsible rafts, enough for 1,178 people to escape; 1,355 passengers were aboard the Titanic, plus a crew of 853, for more than 2,200 people on the ship. The captain declined to hold a lifeboat drill on Sunday to allow people to go to church.
In the midst of the confusion, it’s said that Butt escorted Marie Young, whom he knew as the music governess to the Roosevelt children, to one of the lifeboats. He tucked blankets around her “as carefully as if we were starting on a motor ride,” she said, then told her:
“Goodbye, Miss Young, luck is with you. Will you kindly remember me to all the folks back home?” Then he stepped back, raised his hat and returned to the smoking room.
Gracie said his last image of Butt was in the smoking room, sitting with Clarence Moore, Millet, and a fourth man. They were calmly ignoring the panic around them.
“It occurred to me at the time that these men desired to show their entire indifference to the danger and that if I advised them as to how seriously I regarded it, they would laugh at me,” Gracie wrote in his memoirs.
At his memorial service, Cumming said had Butt been born 25 years earlier, he would have shown the same calm in the Civil War battles of Antietam or Chickamauga.
Butt was “the personification of calm courage and knightly gallantry.”