Major Archibald Butt has a funny name, it cannot be denied— Major Butt! Har har har— but by all accounts, he was a kind and even noble soul who died a hero’s death when the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic one hundred years ago today. A graduate of Sewanee’s class of 1885, he was apparently the picture of Southern chivalry at the time of the ship’s sinking. It was reported shortly afterward that, when one man tried to make his way into a lifeboat, Butt pulled him back and said, “Sorry. Women will be attended to first or I’ll break every damned bone in your body.” His reputation among Titanic buffs has grown apace over the years.
After graduating from Sewanee, Butt joined the army and ended up serving as chief military aide to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. It was at the Major’s suggestion, in fact, that Taft came in 1911 to Sewanee to deliver a wide-ranging speech from a make-shift podium erected in front of All Saint’s Chapel. The image above is from a set of stained-glass windows on University history in the chapel vestibule, only a few feet from where the President and his aide stood that day. I will admit to experiencing a slight vicarious thrill when I look at it, as though somehow the vivid colors of the window associate me in some way with the particulars of their story.
I have seen a black-and-white photograph of that event, which I hope sometime to scan and upload. In it, Taft is speaking, and he is ebullient in the way of all politicians. Behind the President, Butt is harder to make out. Before them is a sea of umbrellas. Here and there you can make out undergraduate faces straining to hear Taft’s speech in the rain. It has occurred to me that many of these young men will go on in the next few years to fight in the First World War and not return. The Sewanee Memorial Cross which looks out from a bluff into the valley below was erected in honor of their collective sacrifice.
But all of that is in those young men’s futures. In Archie Butt’s future, of course, is the Titanic and the iceberg. His name, one posthumous tribute observed, “once synonymous of laughter and jest, now symbolic of heroism, was repeated while eyes blurred and voices became queerly strained.” Also aboard the Titantic on that fateful voyage was Francis Millet, the artist twenty years Butt’s senior with whom he shared a house in Washington. He may have been Butt’s lover, although this is only speculation. In Washington, not far from the White House, is the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain, erected privately, “with the sanction of Congress” as the inscription says, to commemorate their friendship and tragic deaths.
Whatever the nature of their attachment, it is clear that Butt and Millet were close. Millet was himself also a significant figure in his day, and many of his paintings and large-scale murals still are to be found in American buildings. The image to the left is from a series in the Federal Courthouse in Cleveland, originally created for the Post Office, that depict scenes of postal delivery. Its title is “Foreign Mail Transfer, New York Harbor,” and was completed in 1911. The paint on it was hardly dry when Millet boarded the Titanic, together with Butt, headed for New York but never to arrive.
In thinking about such weighty events, I am often inclined to draw a literary connection, as some of you may know. There was, in the days that followed the loss of the ship, an outpouring of poetry about the Titanic’s larger meaning, most of it execrable. Thomas Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain,” on the other hand, is a profound (and not atypical) meditation on the operation of Fate. It is worth reading in full, but one stanza in particular stands out for me:
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
It is a hundred years later. Global warming has loosed more ice from its Arctic network, though travel is more fraught with fear of disaster of human rather than natural origin. If yours was a gay relationship with Francis Millet, Major Butt, you would find the political discourse on the subject more open and yet more vexed now than it had been in your day. Earlier this year, an Italian liner ran aground, and you would be amazed to know her captain was among the first to abandon ship. But perhaps it would please you to know that, at Commencement each spring, Sewanee students and professors walk over the spot where you stood faithfully alongside President Taft so long ago. A century from now, I wonder, who of us will be remembered as you are now, courageous in the face of unspeakable horror?