Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Markings of the Titanic centennial made this history nerd think of a small volume on display at the Arlington Historical Museum.

Both Sides of the Shield” is a 1905 semiautobiographical novel by prominent Army Major Archibald Butt, who perished at age 47 aboard the great ship on April 14, 1912. His local connections make an inspiring if overlooked tale.

The Augusta-Ga.-born Butt was an intimate of presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft. He earned the distinction of serving as top White House aide, bodyguard, and transport administrator after moving from a newspaper career to become a successful Army quartermaster officer in the Philippines.

Butt knew many of the rich and connected during the Gilded Age, and was a member of the prestigious Society of the Cincinnati, the fraternity of Revolutionary War officers’ descendants that still preserves Butt’s memory.

Butt was on the “unsinkable” Titanic returning from a vacation in Rome, where he’d met the Pope and recuperated from exhaustion (too many White House banquets, he’d said). He was traveling with his Georgetown housemate Frank Millet, a well-known painter. Butt paid 26 pounds, 11 shillings for his first-class cabin, according to the Encyclopedia Titanica, having written to his sister-in-law, “If the old ship goes down, you will find my affairs in shipshape condition.”

After the iceberg collision and the abandon-ship order, Butt was seen with three other men sitting calmly in a smoking room. They “seemed deliberately trying to avoid the noisy confusion of the Boat Deck,” wrote historian Walter Lord. But as numerous survivor accounts would testify, Butt was soon helping women and children including steerage passengers into lifeboats. Butt’s story “had a dozen different endings—all gallant, none verified,” wrote Lord.

A new book by Hugh Brewster titled “Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage,” noting the effects of hypothermia, says a crewman later recalled seeing an Army officer crawl aboard a boat and promptly die. “Those who tried to swim without lifejackets out to boats were … likely among the first to perish,” Brewster wrote. “Archie Butt may have been one of them.”

President Taft later wrote in tribute that Butt “would certainly remain on the ship’s deck until every duty had been performed and every sacrifice made….” He approved a design for the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain, on the Ellipse, funds for which were raised privately via marquee names–Tiffany, Olmstead, Frick. A bas-relief honoring Butt is at Washington National Cathedral, and there’s a Butt Memorial Bridge in Augusta.

Closer to home, in Arlington Cemetery, on a hill near the Tomb of Unknown Soldier, is a Celtic cross. “All other memorial markers I have seen at Arlington are not as large as his private monument which, according to the inscription, was placed on the spot Butt had previously selected,” says my friend George Dodge, author of a book on the cemetery. Dodge loaned Butt’s novel to the museum because “he was such an example of a public servant willing to sacrifice everything for his superiors.”

Consulting “The Letters of Archie Butt,” published in 1924, I came across one more Arlington detail. On a freezing day in January 1909, President Roosevelt insisted Butt accompany him on a manly 90-mile horse ride out to Warrenton. The two skipped their habitual stop at Fort Myer, instead veering “to the right” and riding first the six miles to Falls Church.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com

 

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