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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: A head-and‑shoulders photograph of a man of about 45 with a sad look and a heavy somewhat drooping moustache which doesn't help. He is William P. Butler, a West Point graduate whose career is detailed on this webpage.]

Major William P. Butler.

The preceding image, and the text that follows, are reproduced from (the report of the) Thirty-Fourth Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 10th, 1903.

 p87  William Patterson Butler
No. 2124. Class of 1866.
Died, July 13, 1902, at San Francisco, Cal., aged 59.

The class that entered in 1862 included fewer names that ever before had graced a muster roll. The war was still too young. One stalwart fellow had campaigned in West Virginia as a private in an Ohio regiment. Two Presidential appointees had seen some stirring sights in front of Washington in the early days of the Army of the Potomac; one of them, indeed, having been left for dead on the field of First Bull Run, but only one of those reporting in June had drawn a sword as an officer. A tall, curly-haired, blue-eyed young man, in a big slouch hat, who took all the concentrated "deviling" of the day with consummate good nature and placid indifference, turned out to be the ex‑Commissary Sergeant and Acting Battalion Adjutant of the Fourth Kentucky Cavalry.

Eighty‑six names were on our class roll in September, and thirty-nine of these endured to the end. Starting alphabetically in the first section, William P. Butler was there at the finish, being graduated ten, and missing the Engineers by a single file, was assigned at once to the Ordnance. In the interim he had won the chevrons of Corporal, or Sergeant  p88 Major (during camp, was later color bearer), and finally First Lieutenant, Company D. He had won besides the thorough respect and affection of his own class, and the manifest esteem of the entire battalion.

He came of remarkable stock. His father was Noble Butler, a Chester County Pennsylvanian, who moved early to Louisville, and was soon distinguished for scholar­ship and famous as the author of a book studied in every school of the West — Butler's Grammar. Noble Butler's wife was Lucinda Harney, of Indiana, close kind to General William S. Harney of the old army, and the blood of these two worthy names throbbed in the pulses of the boy born to them at Louisville, on April 16th, 1843, — "Bill" Butler, of the class of '66.

Few men in Kentucky were more widely known in the early 60's than Noble Butler, for his scholars were legion, and every scholar honored him. Pure of heart, upright and gentle, said they all, and these traits, added to the just judgment and kindly common sense of the mother, lived intensified in the son. Pure of speech, too, was our Butler in days when Civil War was raging and men were hot in word and deed. Cool, even-tempered, deliberate and scrupulously just, he was one of the "Elders" of the class from the very start, a leader and counselor to the end.

For six years following his graduation, Butler was stationed at Rock Island Arsenal, and there, on the 22nd of June, 1869, was married to Florence Rodman, daughter of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thomas J. Rodman, who, in his day and generation, was probably the most distinguished officer and inventor of the Ordnance Department. The reduction of the army, the stagnation of promotion, and tempting offers and business opportunities in the neighboring city of Rock Island combined to induce Butler to resign his commission and enter civil life. It seemed for some years as though he had chosen well. His  p89 affairs prospered. He was honored by election to civil office, and thrice served as mayor of the city. He was able to keep in touch with his old profession through the citizen soldiery of Illinois, then in need of expert instructors. First as Major and later as Lieutenant Colonel, he taught and disciplined, but business interests led to his removal with his growing family to Chicago, and the severing for a long time of his connection with the state troops, a matter of regret then and thereafter, for those of our graduates in civil life, who had turned their experience to valued account in connection with the "uniformed militia," were in large number promptly rewarded by the government at the outbreak of the Spanish War.

From 1882, for a decade, at least, it seemed as though fortune attended the removal to Chicago. Butler's main business interests were centered in The Illinois Gas Company, of which he was president and manager. All over the west his system of village illumination was slowly finding favor, and everything promised abundant reward, until the successful introduction of electric lighting. Then soon came the financial crash of '93, and finally Butler found his Illinois ventures practically worthless. Four children had been born to him by this time, and the first great sorrow that had come to him and his devoted wife was the loss of their first born, their baby boy, who lived but eighteen months. Now, after twenty years spent in earnest effort, he deemed it necessary to look to other fields, and with his wife and three daughters removed to California in 1896.

Always a reader and thinker, Butler had kept up his studies in mineralogy, and for a time found occupation in locating gold mines in Oregon and California, speedily gaining recognition as an expert in his knowledge of rare metals — osmium, platinum, etc., but he was far from the state wherein his soldier­ship was known; others were occupying the offices he had filled in the National Guard, and he himself was deep  p90 in the wilderness when the war with Spain broke out in '98. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Merritt's expedition to the Philippines was organizing at San Francisco in June and July when, earnest in his tender of service, eager again to draw sword, Butler appeared at the camp, sorrowing to find that he was but one of many graduates to whom the War Department could offer nothing. Unlike the great struggle in which he had first enlisted, in which the nation had sore need of every trained man and mind, this was but a pygmy affair. The government had no greater embarrassment than its riches. Hundreds of swords were tendered to one that could be taken, and the saddest face I saw in San Francisco was that of the beloved classmate who had come hoping to share in the honors or perils of this first great venture of our arms across the seas, and could only bid his luckier comrades good‑bye and God speed.

We never met again. He returned to the mountains and the mines, winning soon a moderately lucrative berth in the Waratah Minerals Company of London, spending long weeks in exploration in saddle and by stage, content at least in the thought that again fortune was faintly smiling, and he could soon see ample provision for the loved ones at his fireside. And in his renewal of hope his energy outmastered his strength, and after some long and exhausting journeys through the wilds of Oregon, he was prostrated by a painful illness that demanded his final return to San Francisco. Mercifully he was given strength to endure the torment of the long, trying journey, but the effort had been too much for his exhausted frame. An apoplectic seizure followed within a day of his restoration to wife and daughters, and for four months he lingered, the object of their fondest care — stifling for their sake all sign of suffering — his fine, clear intellect unclouded — living, yet failing, cheerful, hopeful, even happy to the end. Dying on the 13th of July, 1902, our classmate was laid away in the shadow of the flag, under escort of his companions of  p91 the military order of the Loyal Legion, at the Officers' Cemetery at the Presidio.

In compliance with the custom of our honored association, these data are noted. For years Butler always spoke of Louisville as his home, and one of his kindred, a sister, still lives there. In like manner, probably, the Rodmans regarded Rock Island — it was so long the General's station and command. The children born to Mr. and Mrs. Butler were Thomas Rodman, January 15th, 1872, at Rock Island, died August 4th, 1873; Florence Harney, born October 16, 1873, at Rock Island; Martha Ella, born November 1st, 1878, at Rock Island, and Lucinda Noble, born November 18, 1882, at Chicago. Their present home is his last residence, No. 2615 Devisadero Street, San Francisco.

Of him, and of his patient, brave, unflagging work, it is difficult to speak without emotion. So much of promise had cheered the birth of each successive venture; so much of unmerited disaster had clouded the outcome. The last years were full of anxiety and struggle, of hard and ceaseless toil, yet through all he passed uncomplainingly, unrepining, ever gentle and tender to those dependent on him, ever just and generous to his fellow men, ever courteous and chivalric to women. His was a rare spirit, full of sweetness and of light, tinged at times with that wistful humor that has been likened to the bright side of a tear. If, as the poet has proclaimed in heart-stirring verse: "Laborare est orare," — to labor is to pray,​a then, indeed, was Butler's earnest, devoted life one long petition. As for his name, like that of the honored father in whom he had such pride, no one ever knew or heard it, save as the synonym for long, stainless and unswerving integrity.

Thayer's Note:

a The verse the writer had in mind was probably this little poem by Sir John Bowring, which I quote in full:

Laborare est orare.

"To labour is to pray" — a truth

Brought from old times for me and you,

Fit to be learnt by age and youth,

A word as useful as 'tis true:

In healthful labour, silent prayer,

A welcome offering may be there.

The poem was first published posthumously in A Memorial Volume of Sacred Poetry (London, 1873). The saying is older, as the poet's quotation marks indicate — and, in passing, as also appears to be indicated by its being placed on the seal of the City of Toledo, Ohio in the same year 1873 — but just how much older is another matter. It is superficially akin to the famous Benedictine apophthegm, Ora et labora: which is not to be found in the Rule of St. Benedict, however, and the great monastic founder was crystal-clear that work and prayer are different things; he would surely have disagreed fundamentally with the sentiment here. That said, it probably does derives from the monastic saying, and is often quoted as such by writers, including Carlyle, at least as early as 1842.

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Page updated: 9 Jan 14