No matter the age of the student I haven’t met anyone yet that hasn’t been intrigued by the Titanic disaster. It certainly isn’t difficult to get students talking about the tragedy. They hang on every word regarding the stories of the dead and those who survived. They love the details regarding the hunt and subsequent find for the wreckage.
I’ve always firmly believed the Titanic disaster is a great jumping off place to take a seriously look at the Progressive Era – the period of time between 1890 and 1920. The bravado of the White Star Line and others regarding the unsinkable Titanic……the separation of classes on the ship lending to the social mores of the day……were in stark contrast to the social, political, economic, and education reforms the Progressive Era is known for.
And of course you can always add in a little geography to the Titanic study by asking students to research various Titanic monuments and memorials around the country. Were they memorializing a group or individual? What had the individual done in his or her life to stand out so? Where is the memorial and does it still exist?
In fact, Georgia has her very own Titanic memorial – a bridge named for Major Archibald Willingham Butt. Major Butt is best remembered for being a military aide to both Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Military aides are very visible when the President of the United States is in public. One of their more contemporary jobs today is to carry the football – the satchel containing the nuclear war plan of the United States.
Major Butt was born into a wealthy Augusta, Georgia family who fell on hard times following the Civil War. His first love was journalism but he began his military career during the Spanish American War where he served in the Philippines.
While serving in the White House Major Butt wrote several letters from 1908 to 1912 to his mother and sister. Other letters include a few to Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The letters are housed today at Emory University…see link here… and help to give insight to the administrations of both Roosevelt and Taft. From the Emory site, “Topics discussed are Butt’s service as a presidential aide; Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and other officials; the personal relationship between Taft and Roosevelt; the Roosevelt and Taft families; social life in Washington, D.C.; life in the White House, including notes on its furnishings, portraits painted of Roosevelt and Taft, and visiting dignitaries.
The story goes that Butt was extremely loyal to both Presidents Roosevelt and Taft and heartsick when it appeared Roosevelt and Taft were going to spit the ticket during the election of 1912. For more on the election you can see my post here. Major Butts was caught in an impossible situation since his loyalties were with both men.
He was so thoughtful of President Taft’s feelings that during a White House reception on New Year’s in 1912 he jacked up the counting machines by 1,000 people so the President wouldn’t realize how unpopular he was. Major Butt took his job very seriously. One account tells how Major Butt presented over 1200 people to President Taft in a single hour during a reception for leading judiciary members.
Butt had been unwell and Taft urged him to take a few weeks off and travel to Europe before the Presidential race began with the grueling primary season. Butt took President Taft’s advice and headed off to Europe and in mid-April he was ready to head back to the United States.
Butt’s friend, Francis David Millet – a famous painter – suggested they meet up on the Titanic and head home in style.
It has been reported when the ship hit the iceberg Major Butt was playing cards
There are several versions of his actions with many people telling how he helped hundreds of women and children to the lifeboats and kept many a passenger calm.
Mrs. Henry B. Harris, a passenger on the Titanic, spoke later regarding Major Butts saying, “The man’s conduct will remain in my memory forever..Major Butt was very near me, and I know very nearly everything he did…You would have thought he was at a White House reception so cool and calm was he.”
Even when others were losing it Major Butt remained calm. Mrs. Harris goes on to recall, “Major Butt shot one arm out and caught him by the neck and jerked him backward like a pillow. His head cracked against a rail and he was stunned.” Major Butt when on to tell the man that the women and children would be attended to first, and calmly added, “….or I’ll break every damned bone in your body.”
Major Butt’s remains were never recovered. A cenotaph, or monument, was erected and stands at Arlington National Cemetery today in Major Butt’s memory along with a plaque dedicated to his memory at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.
President Taft spoke at the memorial in Augusta saying of his aide and friend, “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 part of his nature.”
Taft fell into a deep depression following Major Butts died, and often recalled, “Never did I know how much he was to me until he was gone.”
The city of Augusta dedicated a bridge spanning the Augusta canal to Major Butt shortly after the Titanic tragedy in 1914. It was the first Titanic memorial in the nation and the bridge remains the only Titanic memorial in Georgia.
President Taft returned to Georgia in order to dedicate the bridge. The image below is Taft speaking at the dedication.