The Butt Cenotaph, Arlington National Cemetery
This month marks the centennial of a great sea tragedy. The "Women's Titanic Memorial" is located in Washington and sits against the west wall of Fort McNair near the water at the end of "P" Street, SW. Its inscription is "To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic April 15, 1912. They gave their lives that women and children might be saved." This is the story of one such man.
Five passengers in the Titanic were self-declared residents of Washington, D.C. Two survived to live out their lives elsewhere and be buried far away. Two who died had little or no connection with Northern Virginia. The remaining individual, with a posthumous connection to Arlington, is Major Archibald Willingham Butt,
U. S. Army.
BUTT WAS BORN in Augusta, Ga. He arrived in the Nation's capital as a newspaperman serving as eyes and ears for several Southern papers. Along the way he became a novelist. He also served as an embassy official in Mexico City, a post he left to don a uniform at the start of the War with Spain in 1898. When his volunteer commission ended, he joined the regular army. Over the years, Butt became friends with President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, serving both as military aide in the White House. Stresses of those friendships were factors in Butt's death.
Roosevelt had been president and was irked by the conservatism of his successor, Taft. Failing to win over Republican leaders, Roosevelt started a third party under the "Bull Moose" banner. With the Republicans split, Democrat Woodrow Wilson would win the White House. However, through 1911 and into 1912, Butt's presidential friends waged a bitter battle. He stood in the middle torn in both directions. Thinking a trip abroad might improve his situation, Butt sailed to Europe and met with the Pope as Taft's emissary. His booking for the voyage home was on the Titanic.
Shortly before midnight, Saturday evening, April 14, 1912, the ship hit an iceberg. She sank at 2:20 a.m. Those 150 or so minutes forever defined Butt, the man.
All survivors of the mishap were interviewed in depth. Several recollected Butt helping to load and lower lifeboats with women and children, and sternly blocking men who stepped forward. One survivor remembered a group of hysterical women. Butt stepped up, calmed them and gave assurances they would get through the situation safely. This woman ended by remarking "His was the manner we associate with the word aristocrat." Another woman confessed that "The sight of that man, calm, gentle and yet firm as a rock, will never leave me."
With all lifeboats launched, Butt repaired to the First Class Smoking Room located on the uppermost level of the ship (A Deck) directly in line with the fourth smokestack. In a last game of cards, he joined Washington sportsman Clarence Moore and two
Philadelphians, Harry Widener and William Carter. They played until after 2 a.m. and all went down with the ship.
"The sight of that man, calm, gentle and yet firm as a rock, will never leave me."
— Titanic survivor
UNTIL RECENTLY, grave sites in Arlington National Cemetery could be "reserved." Career military officers and other eligible personages took care in selecting a special spot. Butt chose the crest of a hill alongside Porter Drive in Section 3. Today, the site is about 900 feet due south of the amphitheater behind the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Since his body was not recovered, a large Celtic cross serves as Butt's cenotaph (Greek: "empty grave"). One tablet is biographical and ends with the Biblical quotation (John XV 13) "Greater love hath no man than this: That a man lay down his life for his friends." The other plaque reads, in part: "A devoted son and brother, an efficient officer, a loyal friend, who in death, as in life, served faithfully God and humanity."