An Ignored Titanic Memorial – Part I


Washington DC is a city filled with memorials and monuments so it’s not surprising that some (many) of those memorials lost their meaning long ago and today go largely unnoticed by the public – even when they’re in some of the most popular tourist areas of the District. The monument I want to talk about today is from my audio tour of Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenue. It sits right across from the south lawn of the White House – the place where many a visitor has snapped their family or school pictures. Perhaps you’ve seen it?

Butt-Millet Memorial
Butt-Millet Memorial

The memorial is a small, white marble basin with a marble shaft. On a good day, it’s a lovely fountain but on most days it’s just a temporary platform for coats, bags, cameras — or small children.

This is the Butt-Millet Memorial, dedicated to two men who perished on the Titanic: DC resident, Archibald Willingham Butt, and Francis Davis Millet, an artist from Massachusetts. . The two men were good friends; they live here in DC, not far from the White House. Today, they are unknown to the general public, their lives and their stories never becoming part of the American collective memory.

And the sculptor of this piece? Daniel Chester French, the renowned artist who created the great statue of Abraham Lincoln down at the end of the Mall – you know – the Lincoln Memorial.

Archibald Butt, Library of Congress
Archibald Butt,
Library of Congress

Archibald Butt, known as Archie to all, was born in Augusta, Georgia in 1865. He was a graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. After college, Butt became a writer and reporter. He joined the military and served first in the Philippines and later in Cuba. In 1908, at age 42, he was sent to the White House as a military attaché and assistant to both President Theodore Roosevelt, and President William Howard Taft.

Even after he entered service in the White House, he continued to chronicle and record events from the grandiose to the seemingly unimportant. There’s one amusing story that’s told about the White House china — and Helen Taft, the President’s wife. Mrs Taft, in choosing the Taft china pattern liked the Roosevelt china — so much so that she decided to expand that collection. There was some comparison with the “fanciful” Hayes collection, which apparently was a kind description for something that was considered pretty awful. Much to Archie’s relief, the Hayes china was packed away. He described the Hayes china as “about as ugly as it is possible for china to be.”

Teddy Roosevelt, Library of Congress
Teddy Roosevelt,
Library of Congress

Archie Butt was the quintessential military aide. He was the discreet, charming, self-assured keeper of the etiquette keys at the White House. He was an indispensable support, sounding-board, and confidant to both President Roosevelt and Taft. William Seale, in his book, “The President’s House,” paints a colorful picture as he describes Butt as “a Georgia aristocrat,” and “soldier, socialite, southern gentleman, horseman, amateur sportsman, affectionate friend, occasional fop.” Seale goes on to describe his physique, saying that he was tall, with a “large head, muscular upper body, lean lower body, moustache, and parted his hair neatly in the middle.” (Please refrain from any jokes about Archie’s last name at this point!)

During his four years at the White House (1908 – 1912), he became a tireless servant to the often obscure requirements of White House protocol. He used his skills as a keen observer and prolific writer to record — and comment on — the many social events he witnessed. In fact, his published letters alone number over twelve hundred pages and three volumes.

A person of perpetual motion, Butt spent his days running White House affairs with an awe-inspiring efficiency and precision. His evenings? You’d often find him in the midst of a wide circle of friends, dining and dancing in Washington’s social clubs. And when he wasn’t out and about, more than likely he would be at his large home near LaFayette Square, hosting dinners and open houses. You can be sure that, being a bachelor, he was much sought-after by the young ladies or, more likely, by their mothers who were eager to match their daughters with someone who was so obviously accomplished, worldly, and debonair.

In 1908, just after he arrived at the Roosevelt White House, Archie found himself in the thick of things, assisting at a dinner party for a large group that included many state governors and William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate. The “pomp and circumstance” of such an occasion was Archie’s forte. It was his opportunity to display the President at his absolute best. It was also an opportunity for Butt to display HIMSELF at his best – and most military (he wore his Army dress uniform every chance he got). One of the other military aides remarked that Archie Butt took “frank and unabashed pleasure” in wearing a uniform, “the gaudier … the better.”

He was very, very good at his job. He mixed well no matter who the guests were; whether he liked them or not was of no consequence. His job at functions was to keep conversation pleasant, rescue stranded guests, greet everyone as if they were the head of state, start applause at the right time, herd the masses from room to room, and address problems with absolute discretion.

William Howard Taft, Library of Congress
William Howard Taft,
Library of Congress

By the time William Howard Taft took office, Archie’s energies – physical, mental, and emotional – were beginning to flag. Beginning to flag? Actually, the man was showing all the signs of a breakdown. In the winter of 1912, both Butt’s doctor and President Taft insisted that he take some time off so, that March, after a final dinner at the White House – one that was actually in HIS honor, Butt goes off on a European sojourn, expecting to take a couple of months before returning refreshed. Archie also looked forward to meeting up with his friend, Francis Millet, who was in Italy.

Expecting him to enjoy his time away, and expecting to NOT see him for awhile, President Taft was surprised to receive a telegram from Archie a month later, early April. Butt was taking the opportunity to sail home a little early – an exciting journey! He could book passage for the maiden voyage of the spectacular sailing ship, the Titanic.

Next time, we’ll meet the other unknown on the monument, Francis Davis Millet, an artist of extraordinary talent, whose works include a piece created for the US Army. Please check back with me in a couple of weeks for the next installment of Uncommon Knowledge. In the meantime, please check out my audio walking tour of Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues. You’ll find that tour, along with many others at my website, http://BrightPathTours.com

Sources:

  • “The President’s House,” William Seale
  • “Outdoor Sculpture of Washington DC”, James M Goode
  • Pentagon.mil; Army & Campaign Service Medals

 

 

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