This weekend’s centennial of the sinking of the Titanic has revived memories of a much-beloved high-level federal official who went down with the ship.
Army Maj. Archibald Butt was an intimate of presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, serving as top White House aide, bodyguard, and transport administrator after moving from a newspaper career to become a successful Army quartermaster officer in the Philippines.
Exhausted from many White House banquets, Butt was vacationing in Rome in April 1912 when he and prominent painter Frank Millet booked passage on the “unsinkable” ship from Southampton, England.
After the iceberg collision and the abandon-ship order, Butt was seen with three other men sitting calmly in a smoking room. They “seemed deliberately trying to avoid the noisy confusion of the Boat Deck,” wrote historian Walter Lord. But as numerous survivor accounts would testify, Butt was soon helping women and children including steerage passengers into lifeboats. Butt’s story “had a dozen different endings—all gallant, none verified,” Lord said.
President Taft later wrote in tribute that Butt “would certainly remain on the ship’s deck until every duty had been performed and every sacrifice made….” He approved a design for the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain, still on the Ellipse, funds for which were raised privately via marquee names--Tiffany, Olmstead, Frick. A bas-relief honoring Butt is at Washington National Cathedral. And in Arlington Cemetery, on a hill near the Tomb of Unknown Soldier, he is honored with a relatively large Celtic cross, on a spot that Butt himself had selected.
Arlington attorney George Dodge, who became interested in Butt while researching a book on Arlington Cemetery, admires him as “an example of a public servant willing to sacrifice everything for his superiors.”