Major Archibald Butt was a journalist, U.S. Army officer, and military aide to U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. During his tenure of service to President Taft, Butt perished in the sinking of the Titanic.
Butt’s letters were collected and published after his death, and they proved invaluable to historians for the insights they revealed about the inner workings of the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. In the preface to Both Sides of the Shield, a short novel by Butt published posthumously, a biographer stated that what Butt “didn’t know about White House affairs was considered hardly worth knowing.”
Archibald Willingham Butt was born in Augusta on September 26, 1865, to Pamela Robertson and Joshua Willingham Butt. He attended the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, graduating in 1888. Shortly after graduation, he focused on a career in journalism, working first for the Louisville Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, then for the Macon Telegraph in Macon, Georgia. Afterward, he secured a job in Washington, D.C., as a correspondent for several southern newspapers, including the Atlanta Constitution, Augusta Chronicle, and Savannah News. Through connections he made with U.S. State Department officials, Butt was appointed secretary of the American embassy in Mexico City, Mexico. There, he served with fellow ambassador Matt Ransom, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina and Confederate general. Butt never married.
At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Butt left Mexico and returned to the United States, where he joined the army at the rank of lieutenant. After the war, he was commissioned as a captain in the Quartermaster’s Department and was given orders to go to the Philippines, where the American military sought to quell an insurrection by the Filipino people (1898-1902). Butt was charged with supervising the transport of more than 500 horses and mules being shipped to the Philippines for use by the army, and he carried out that challenge so effectively—with no loss of life—that he wrote several articles on how to care successfully for animals in tropical climates. These reports caught the eye of many in the military, as well as President Theodore Roosevelt.
After almost four years of service in the Philippines, Butt returned to Washington, D.C., where he served as depot quartermaster until 1906. In September of that year, he was sent to Cuba with the army of occupation. His excellent service in Cuba prompted President Roosevelt to appoint him as his personal military aide.
Presidential Military Aide
Butt served as Roosevelt’s military aide from April 1908 until March 1909, when Roosevelt’s second term ended. Butt had built a friendship with the incoming president, William Howard Taft (Roosevelt’s handpicked successor), and he was asked to stay on as military aide. As Taft’s aide, he helped coordinate the president’s schedule and accompanied him to state functions, and in 1911 Taft promoted him to the rank of major. In 1912 the political climate in the Republican Party changed, and Butt found himself in the middle of a heated battle between Taft and Roosevelt. Because Taft had made several appointments and supported various laws and initiatives with which Roosevelt did not agree, Roosevelt made it clear he was going to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912. The situation took its toll on Butt, who felt that it would be impossible to choose between the two rivals he had served so faithfully.
On Board the Titanic
The strain on Butt led President Taft to encourage him to take a vacation, and Butt left for Europe on March 2,1912. The president gave him an indefinite sick leave and encouraged him to take a slow boat back so that he could take advantage of the sea air. While in Europe, Butt’s only official business was to call on Pope Pius X at the Vatican, in Rome, Italy, where he delivered a personal message to the pope from the president. Butt headed for home and boarded the Titanic on April 10. Five days later, the luxury liner struck an iceberg and sank in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Butt’s remains were never found.
A memorial service was held in the Butt family home on May 2, 1912, with Taft in attendance. The Butt Memorial Bridge, which spans the Augusta Canal, was erected in downtown Augusta in Butt’s honor. President Taft returned to Augusta for the dedication of the bridge in 1914, on the second anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The bridge is the only Titanic memorial in Georgia.