Thursday, March 8, 2012

Titanic Centennial: "He was One of God's Greatest Noblemen"

Major Archibald Butt (1865-1912)
Two different eyewitnesses attested to Major Archibald Butt's bravery that night. From The Sinking of the Titanic and other Sea Disasters:
The following story of his bravery was told by Mrs. Henry B. Harris, wife of a theatrical manager:
'The world should rise in praise of Major Butt. That man's conduct will remain in my memory forever. The American army is honored by him and the way he taught some of the other men how to behave when women and children were suffering that awful mental fear of death. Major Butt was near me and I noticed everything that he did.
When the order to man the boats came, the captain whispered something to Major Butt. The two of them had become friends. The major immediately became as one in supreme command. You would have thought he was at a White House reception. A dozen or more women became hysterical all at once, as something connected with a life-boat went wrong. Major Butt stepped over to them and said: 'Really, you must not act like that; we are all going to see you through this thing.' He helped the sailors rearrange the rope or chain that had gone wrong and lifted some of the women in with a touch of gallantry. Not only was there a complete lack of any fear in his manner, but there was the action of an aristocrat.
When the time came he was a man to be feared. In one of the earlier boats fifty women, it seemed, were about to lowered, when a man, suddenly panic-stricken, ran to the stern of it. Major Butt shot one arm out, caught him by the back of the neck and jerked him backward like a pillow. His head cracked against a rail and he was stunned.
'Sorry,' said Major Butt, 'women will be attended to first or I'll break every damned bone in your body.'
The boats were lowered one by one, and as I stood by, my husband said to me, 'Thank God, for Archie Butt.' Perhaps Major Butt heard it, for he turned his face towards us for a second and smiled. Just at that moment, a young man was arguing to get into a life-boat, and Major Butt had a hold of the lad by the arm, like a big brother, and was telling him to keep his head and be a man.
Major Butt helped those poor frightened steerage people so wonderfully, so tenderly and yet with such cool and manly firmness that he prevented the loss of many lives from panic. He was a soldier to the last. He was one of God's greatest noblemen, and I think I can say he was an example of bravery even to men on the ship.
Miss Marie Young, who was a music instructor to President Roosevelt's children and had known Major Butt during the occupancy of the White House, told this story of his heroism:
Archie himself put me into a boat, wrapped blankets about me and tucked me in as carefully as if we were starting on a motor ride. He, himself, entered the boat with me, performing the little courtesies as calmly and with as smiling a face as if death were far away, instead of being but a few moments removed from him.

When he had carefully wrapped me up he stepped upon the gunwale of the boat, and lifting his hat, smiled down at me. 'Good-bye, Miss Young,' he said. 'Good luck to you, and don't forget to remember me to the folks back home.' Then he stepped back and waved his hand to me as the boat was lowered. I think I was the last woman he had a chance to help, for the boat went down shortly after we cleared the suction zone.
I cannot fathom why Butt's gallantry has been whitewashed from Titanic history. Was it just his unfortunate name?

Sometime between 1912 and the publication of Walter Lord's A Night To Remember in 1955, Major Butt's actions were inexplicably downgraded to casual bystander.  He doesn't even appear in Cameron's Titanic. Lord, doyen of Titanic historians, had interviewed dozens of living Titanic survivors for his book, but I wonder if Marie Young or Mrs Harris were among them. 

I can suggest three other possible reasons:
  • Butt had been over-dramatized in earlier accounts and Walter Lord wanted to attenuate that. Lord also downplayed the words and heroism of Benjamin Guggenheim, who will be in a future post.
  • Butt was a southerner and the nephew of a Confederate general (Lord was an early civil rights activist).
  • Butt was a bachelor and was travelling with the artist  Francis David Millet, who had scandalously lived abroad with another man. Lord himself was a lifelong bachelor and probably should have been more sympathetic.
Despite his diminished stature among Titanic historians, Butt's memory lives.  According to the Wiki:
During his time serving with two presidents, Butt wrote almost daily letters to his sister-in-law Clara, of Augusta, Georgia. These letters are prized by modern historians as a key source of information on the more private events of these two presidencies, as well as invaluable insights into the respective characters of Roosevelt and Taft.


  1. It's those unaccounted people who have made what's great in the world, great.

    I can tick off a dozen men of that stripe myself who are unsung by poets and popular literature. None of them were politicians...

  2. Great post. Thanks. We should recognize him.

  3. I'm looking forward the History Channel's new piece on Titanic...the first complete mapping of the entire debris field and wreck site.

    What is it about this event that grabs so many of us?

  4. performing the little courtesies

    This was the line that stood out when I first read the post. It revealed respect and dignity to be part of his character.

  5. What is it about this event that grabs so many of us?

    Vainglory is a word that came to mind last week, in a different context. The actual definition was not near as interesting to me as the thought of vanity and glory side by side in one word or experience. Truly the big ship revealed a blend of both as did the lives and behavior of passengers and crew.

    1. "Vainglory" was also something Butt avoided. You reminded me of something I translated back here about St. Francis of Assisi:

      St. Francis, seeing so manifest a miracle that God had worked through his hands, thanks God and departs from there, journeying to far away countries; because of humility he wants to escape all worldly glory, and for all his works seeks only the glory of God and not his own.

  6. Benjamin Guggenheim - where is that post? Thx