Archibald Gracie (1858-1912) was a colonel, military historian, wealthy real estate investor, and author. The Mobile native is best known, however, for his heroic efforts to load fellow passengers aboard lifeboats on the iceberg-stricken RMS Titanic and for surviving the sinking. Gracie would later write a book about his account of the disaster that is considered one of the most accurate firsthand accounts of the incident. He is credited with saving numerous lives and was present at all the formal inquiries into the ship’s sinking.
Archibald Gracie Gracie was born on January 17, 1858, to Archibald Gracie III and Josephine Mayo Gracie, in Mobile, Mobile County. He had one sister. His father, Archibald Gracie III, was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York. The Gracie family was wealthy and influential in New York but also owned shipping businesses in Mobile. Archibald’s great grandfather built the noted Federal-style Gracie Mansion (ca. 1799), which serves as the official residence of the mayor of New York City. During the Civil War, Gracie III sided with the Confederacy, despite his New York family connections, and served as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. He and his troops seized the federal arsenal at Mount Vernon, Mobile County, just prior to Alabama’s January 1861 secession from the Union. He later commanded forces in the Battles of Chickamauga in September 1863 and Chattanooga in November 1863. He was killed by an artillery shell on December 2, 1864, during the Union siege of Petersburg, Virginia.
Archibald attended primary school at St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire, and then attended West Point. He did not graduate from the academy but enlisted in the Army and rose to the rank of colonel in the Seventh New York Regiment. After serving in the Army, Archibald married Constance Elise Shack in 1890 at Cavalry Church in New York. The couple would have four daughters, only one of whom survived into adulthood. Two daughters died very young, and Constance Julie Gracie was killed at the age of 12 in an elevator accident while the family was on a trip in France.
In 1912, Gracie had finished writing The Truth about Chickamauga, a book about the battle in which his father fought, a Confederate victory. (It appears he was unhappy with newspaper accounts of the battle and the federal interpretation at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park established in the 1890s.) Gracie then decided to take a solo trip to Europe aboard the RMS Oceanic for some well needed rest. For his return trip to New York, he booked passage on the RMS Titanic in Southampton, England, as a first-class passenger and left port on April 10. On the day of the infamous sinking, April 14, Gracie read and socialized with fellow passengers. He enjoyed a late dinner with friends Clinch Smith and Edward Kent while listening to the ship’s band. Gracie returned to his cabin in anticipation of an early-morning workout that was to include racquetball, exercise in the gym, and a swim in the ship’s heated pool. He was roused at 11:45 p.m., however, by a strong shock on the starboard side of the ship and the sound of escaping steam. Gracie reported that he dressed and went up on deck to determine what had happened.
After some delay, Gracie discovered the ship had struck an iceberg and was sinking. He assisted in loading the lifeboats and made sure that three women he had befriended, a Mrs. Appleton, Mrs. Cornell, and Mrs. Brown, made it into the boats. A fourth friend, a Miss Evans, became separated and did not make it off the ship. He remained onboard until all the lifeboats had been loaded and lowered into the water. As the massive vessel sank, Gracie and Clinch Smith jumped from the deck into the icy water. Gracie struggled to the surface after becoming briefly entangled in lines. He was able to swim to an overturned lifeboat, but he never saw Smith again. Gracie spent several hours clinging to the overturned lifeboat with other survivors until they were picked up by the RMS Carpathia in the early hours of April 15.
In the months after the sinking of the Titanic, Gracie testified at official government inquiries and wrote a detailed account of the disaster. But he suffered from the effects of hypothermia as well as complications from diabetes and died after prolonged illness on December 4, 1912, at his home in New York City. His manuscript of the sinking was published after his death and titled The Truth about the Titanic. It was later renamed as Titanic: a Survivor’s Story. His last words were reported by the New York Times as, “We must get them into the boats, we must get them all into the boats.” Many of the survivors from the Titanic were present at his funeral. He has been portrayed in at least two films about the disaster: Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958) and James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). Gracie was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York, next to his daughters.
Gracie, Colonel Archibald. Titanic: A Survivor’s Story. 1913. Reprint, Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers,1998.