This is a guest post by Margaret McAleer, a historian in the Manuscript Division.
Major Archie Butt, a friend and aide to two presidents, stood on the deck of the sinking RMS Titanic in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. He and Frank Millet, his close friend and perhaps more, would not survive the next few hours, although exactly how they died has been a source of Titanic conjecture for more than a century.
The story of Butt’s death is one of the most touching moments in the Library’s newly digitized William H. Taft Papers. Taft, a Republican and native of Ohio, was born on this day in 1857. He came of age in the era of American inventions that changed the world — the telegraph, electricity, lights, recordings, film, automobiles, planes and, of course, massive steam-powered ships. His is the largest of the Manuscript Division’s 23 presidential collections, comprising approximately 676,000 documents covering his personal life and public career, including his term as U.S. president, 1909-1913, and his tenure as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1921-1930. As with many of the Library’s presidential collections, the Taft Papers reveal with touching intimacy the humanity of the president, his family and staff.
Few moments are more moving than his devastation at the death of Butt, a man he regarded as a “younger brother.” Taft wept so openly at one of his memorial services that he had to be led from the podium.
“Never did I know how much he was to me until he was dead,” Taft eulogized.
Beginning in the early 1890s, Archibald Willingham Butt succeeded in making Washington, D.C., his own. The affable Georgia native was well-liked in the city from the moment he arrived as a newspaper correspondent. In 1898, Butt signed up with the military when war broke out with Spain. His military uniforms became his signature look, as he was quite the dandy: “A flash of bewild’ring dazzle,” the poet William J. Lampton wrote.
Butt became President Theodore Roosevelt’s friend and military aide in 1908, taking to the White House whirl with “boyish delight,” according to a former aide.
In 1909, Taft asked Butt to stay on when he succeeded Roosevelt as president. He had known Butt since he was governor general of the Philippines and Butt was stationed there. The transition was easy, as Roosevelt and Taft were political allies and friends.
Butt purchased a large house in Foggy Bottom, sharing the place with Francis Davis Millet, an esteemed artist who was at least 17 years his senior. Millet also served on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The pair, with another housemate, often entertained, hosting parties that included Taft, Roosevelt and other members of Washington’s elite.
Historians debate the nature of their relationship. Butt was a lifelong bachelor. Millet frequently lived apart from his wife and family as he pursued far-flung commissions. He was known to have same-sex relationships. Their friendship deepened when Millet offered to paint Butt’s portrait in his Georgetown studio, a portrait Butt described as an incredible act of generosity. According to a mutual friend, it was “a labour of love.” Yet another friend commented, after their deaths, that they had “shared a sympathy of mind which is most unusual.”
Still, Washington can destroy even those who love it.
The happy Roosevelt-Taft orbit in which Butt flourished became toxic by 1912. The former and current presidents turned against one other in a heated contest for the Republican nomination; Taft felt betrayed and doomed.
Butt was wrecked by this bitter rivalry between two men he adored. Travel and stress caused him to drop nearly 20 pounds. “If I am to go through this frightful summer,” Butt wrote to his sister-in-law, Clara, two days after Roosevelt announced his intention to run, “I must have a rest now.”
Millet was concerned about Butt and insisted that he accompany him to Italy while he attended to business at the American Academy in Rome and then travel elsewhere on the continent for a few weeks. Taft urged him to go, too, and Butt sailed for Europe with Millet on March 1. Once at sea, he wrote to Taft’s secretary, asking him to book return travel for him on the maiden voyage of the most elite liner ever built: “I want to come back by the Titanic.”
Those who saw him in Europe during the next six weeks reported mostly that he was downcast and apprehensive. “He came to us in a depressed and sad state of mind,” reported relatives in England. Marian Longstreth Thayer, the socialite and fellow Titanic passenger, observed that he “did not know how he was going to stand the rushing life he was returning to.”
Butt’s mood reportedly lifted as he left London to meet the Titanic in Southampton. Millet joined the ship in Cherbourg, and they settled into their first-class accommodations.
Disaster struck four days later at 11:40 p.m., Sunday, April 14. Butt and Millett were playing cards with several others when the ship struck the iceberg.
Later, survivors told many different stories of Butt’s final hours.
Some said he coolly played cards until nearly the end. Thayer wrote Taft that he rushed unseeing past her on the way to his stateroom. Mostly there was the press’s heroic take that Butt took charge, ushering women and children into lifeboats and threatening to kill any man who tried to take their place. It’s never been clear which, if any or all, are true. One heartbreaking anecdote — which had him helping Marie G. Young into the last spot in the last lifeboat, then gallantly tipping his hat as they were lowered away — was debunked by Young in a letter to Taft, saying she did not see him at all that night. Millet, it was reported, was last seen helping women into lifeboats.
Meanwhile, in Washington, President Taft waited late into the night on April 15 for updates on the disaster and then into the next day. A telegram at 4:20 p.m. on April 16 said Millet was saved, but there was no word on Butt.
Within days, the bitter truth emerged. Millet’s body was recovered, floating among the wreckage. He was 63. The body of Butt, 46, was never found. Newspapers devoted pages of coverage to Butt’s passing.
To another, he confessed to seeing Butt in “every place I walk, every man I meet, every woman I meet. . . . The sweet flavor of his presence is with me always.” On May 5, while speaking at Butt’s memorial service in D.C., Taft broke down and could not continue.
He soon supported the construction of a memorial fountain to Butt and Millet — the only two federal officials lost in the disaster — in President’s Park on the White House Ellipse. Sculpted by the famed Daniel Chester French, it depicts an allegorical male figure (Butt) who holds a shield and sword as symbols of military valor. A female figure (Millet) holds a brush and palette evoking the arts.
Taft’s instincts about his reelection chances were accurate.
In the general election in November, he and Roosevelt split votes, allowing the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, to claim an overwhelming victory of 435 Electoral College votes. Roosevelt, by then running as a Progressive, had 88 and Taft, the Republican incumbent, won just 8.
Taft was not finished in public life. He would go on to become one of the nation’s most consequential U.S. Supreme Court chief justices. Still, there is little doubt that the Titanic, and the loss of Archie Butt, never truly left his mind.
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox.