Confederates on the Titanic

A large number of Civil War veterans no doubt read about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, one of history’s deadliest maritime disasters. Some of those veterans may have noted a few familiar names. At least one Confederate and the relatives of three Confederate generals were onboard.

Among the most notable men to sail on the great vessel was Georgia native Major Archibald Butt. He was a relative of Brigadier General William R. Boggs and he was born only three months after the last major Confederate forces surrendered. Butt joined the army and gained notoriety as a master of logistics and organization. He served as military aide to his friends Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, being particularly close to the later.

By the time the Titanic sank, Butt was Taft’s unofficial adviser and negotiator. Many stories were spun about Butt’s actions on the ship, none of which can be corroborated as there was a desperate push after the sinking to make Butt a hero. All that can really be said for sure is that Butt died onboard and his body was not recovered. Butt’s death anguished Taft, who was already facing a Republican Party on the verge of splitting.

Archibald Butt

Less prominent, but more directly tied to the Confederacy was Archibald Gracie IV, son of the Confederate brigade commander with the third name. Gracie was born in Mobile but raised in the north. It was while attending school in New Hampshire that his father was killed on December 2, 1864 while looking through a telescope on the Petersburg lines. The day before his death his daughter, Adeline Gracie, was born.

Gracie became a successful real estate investor, but he was also keenly interested in the military matters, being active in the New York militia although he did not get through West Point. Gracie used his Washington connections in an attempt to craft a national road connecting Petersburg to Gettysburg, hoping to also make the former into a battlefield park. Gracie’s idea came to naught, though. He instead was absorbed in writing The Truth About Chickamauga and a biography of his father. Before he could finish the biography he boarded Titanic. He entertained a small group of mostly unattended women, telling stories of the war.

After the Titanic struck an iceberg on April 14, Gracie and his friend J. Clinch Smith, placed blankets in lifeboats. They aided Second Officer Charles Lightoller in filling the boats and helped to free the collasible boats. Gracie went down with the ship, but managed to get onto Collapsible boat B, which capsized in the sinking. Gracie believed he owed his success to his swimming skills. Sadly, Smith was pulled under while Gracie freed himself. In addition, Edith Corse Evans, one of the women Gracie chaperoned, also died, one of only four first-class female passengers to perish. The bodies of neither Evans nor Smith were found.

Gracie’s Grave

Gracie survived because of Lightoller’s skill as a seaman. The second officer organized the men on the boat and took control. The sea, dead calm when Titanic sank, gradually became worse. Without Lightoller, it is doubtful anyone would have survived on Collapsible B. Eventually the upside down boat was recovered. Soon after Gracie wrote The Truth About Titanic, still one of the best primary sources about the sinking. However, such was his ordeal in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean that he was among the first survivors to die. His last words were supposedly “We must get them into the boats. We must get them all into the boats.” He is buried next to his father in a simple grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

Just as, if not more famous than Butt and Gracie, was Isidor Straus. He was among the three richest men aboard the ship, along with John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim. Straus was a Bavarian Jew who was living in Georgia when the war came. In 1861 he had secured an appointment to West Point, but stayed with the Confederacy. He was elected lieutenant of a Georgia company, but was deemed too young and there was a lack of weapons. In 1863 he went to England to purchase ships for blockade-running, but failed.

In 1865 he moved to New York City. He proved to be a savvy businessman and by 1893 he was the full owner of Macy’s along with his brother Nathan. The next year he served in the House of Representatives and after finishing his time there turned down an offer from Grover Cleveland to be Postmaster General. As a politician he favored reforms in education and lower tariffs.

Isidor and Ida Straus

In 1892, Straus wrote a letter to his children, only to be open upon his death. He gave them advice for keeping the family together in order to remain successful, including these lines: “Be quick to forgive, ready to forget, eager to acknowledge when you have been in the wrong. Stubbornness is a grievous fault. None of us are perfect and we can always deter little shortcomings in others more quickly than we will recognize greater ones in ourselves. Difference of opinion will arise between thinking persons. Whoever may have been right should not exult and taunt the other for having been wrong.”

In 1911 Straus wrote his autobiography and then went to Europe for the winter, mostly spent at Cape Martin in southern France and in Germany inspecting new fabrics, which he brought back with him. He boarded Titanic with his wife Ida. Gracie and Straus talked several times about the Civil War, with Gracie loaning Straus a copy of The Truth About Chickamauga, which he enjoyed.

Last Photo of the Titanic

One of the most famous incidents of the sinking came when Gracie tried to secure Straus a place on a lifeboat. He refused to go before the other men. Ida also refused, saying “I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so will we die, together.” Ida gave her maid, Ellen Bird, her fur coat and saw her off. The couple went down with the ship, as did Astor and Guggenheim. Many things go into the Titanic story that make it compelling, but surely the fact that so many of the most powerful men in the world, were not only aboard but died seemingly willingly.

Isidor Straus’ body was found, but Ida’s was not. He was first buried in the Straus-Kohns Mausoleum at Beth-El Cemetery in Brooklyn, then moved to the Straus Mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery, the same place where his friend Gracie resides. The family collected water from the wreck site and placed it in an urn in the mausoleum to represent Ida. A cenotaph outside the mausoleum has this passage from Song of Solomon: “Many waters cannot quench love—neither can the floods drown it.”

A Night to Remember (1958)

The death of Isidor and Ida Straus was played up in newspapers as a act of love, courage, and devotion. Those appalled by anti-Semitism used it to counter arguments that Jews were cowardly and duplicitous. The couple received their share of honors. There is a memorial plaque on the main floor of Macy’s Department Store in Manhattan and Straus Park near their Manhattan home, complete with a statue. There is even a school and a Harvard University residence hall. Most films feature the doomed couple, as well as Gracie, Astor, and Guggenheim, although they are always bit players. Not surprisingly, Nazi Germany’s 1943 film Titanic does not include Isidor and Ida Straus. As an aside, for all the fuss and controversy over Butt in 1912, he has never been in any Titanic film although he was a major character in the novel From Time to Time.

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7 Responses to Confederates on the Titanic

  1. nygiant1952 says:

    Nice memorial.

  2. Thank you!

  3. Sam Elliott says:

    Interesting article. You might want to double check on Brown McMillin. According to Find-a-Grave, which quotes a newspaper article, he died in Bristol, TN in October, 1912. Perhaps he was on the Titanic and survived.

    • Sean Michael Chick says:

      You appear to be correct. I have taken it out. Thank you for spotting it.

      It does appear he took an interest in the sinking and wrote a poem about it, “A Cross of Honor.”

      • Sam Elliott says:

        Not a problem. I saw the poem quoted in a fraternity book of some kind. I am the biographer of his grandfather, John C. Brown, knew that he died in 1912, and hated that I might have missed such an interesting point such as his death on the Titanic.

  4. I knew about Butt and Gracie’s connections to the war, but not the others. It was said that Gracie had copies of his book onboard with him and would eagerly loan them out, even when the recipient couldn’t have cared less. The man was incredibly charismatic. Butt had journeyed to Europe to take a break from political campaigning due to the immense stress and was still recuperating on the way back to New York. There were so many interesting characters on that ship. Thank you for sharing a bit of their stories!

  5. Katy Berman says:

    A fascinating article, compassionately written. I knew the Strauss story, but not all the details. How was it possible that his body was found? What can you tell us about Archibald Butt and the push to make him a hero?

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