Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Secret Agent: Maj. Archibald Butt, President Taft's military aide

Above: Butt

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.

On January 2, 1900, Butt received a commission as a Captain of United States Volunteers in the United States Army.[1] He served in the Philippines from 1900 to 1904. While he was in the Philippines, he had a part in founding the Military Order of the Carabao, a tongue-in-cheek spoof of military fraternal organization that is still in operation today. In 1904, he was made Depot Quartermaster of Washington, D.C., where he met President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1906, he was sent to Cuba to as part of a pacification force. In 1908, now a captain, Butt was recalled to Washington to serve as chief military aide to President 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.

Above: Butt on the White House portico, with Robert Baden-Powell, President Taft and British ambassador Bryce in the foreground (1912-02-03)

During his time serving with two presidents, Butt wrote almost daily letters to his sister-in-law Clara, of Augusta, Georgia. These letters are a key source of information on the more private events of these two presidencies and provide insights into the respective characters of Roosevelt and Taft. 

By 1912, Taft's first term was coming to an end and Roosevelt, who had fallen out with Taft, 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.

Butt left on a six-week vacation to Europe. He was accompanied for part of his vacation by the American painter Francis Davis Millet, his longtime friend. 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 his return passage on the RMS Titanic. He boarded the Titanic at Southampton, UK on April 10, 1912; his partner Millet boarded the ship at Cherbourg, France 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 two and half hours later, with a loss of over 1500 souls.

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 was last seen in the smoking room, making no attempt to save himself. He went down with the Titanic; his remains were not found.

Millet's body was recovered after the sinking and was buried in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

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 traveling protagonist, he refuses to save himself and his mission when women and children will perish. His mission fails with his death.


Wikipedia "Archibald Butt"