What we do know is that Captain Smith was an experienced, able captain that had been in charge of the White Star Line's biggest and best ships for a while. If the White Star Line had the rank of "Commodore", Captain Smith, would have that rank. He had been at sea for 39 years without one ship from sinking from under him and only a few accidents. He was a popular favorite with many millionaires who preferred to sail under him which earned him the nickname, "Millionaire's Captain". 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller described him as a man with a commanding presence but had an unexpectedly quiet voice. As the Titanic was passing the docks of Southampton, the stern of the S.S. New York was drawn to the Titanic by her suction and Captain Smith gave orders that prevented a collision. It has been suggested that this was going to be his last voyage.
On the 13th of April, Elizabeth Lines said that she overheard a conversation between Captain Smith and J. Bruce Ismay (the managing director of the White Star Line). According to Lines, Ismay pressed Ismay to speed up the ship and Captain Smith said nothing. He merely nodded.
He usually had his dinners at a small table in the 1st class Dining Saloon but on Titanic's last night, he dined in the A La Carte Restaurant where the Wideners were having a party in his honor. He sat in at a table towards the Starboard side of the ship in an alcove at the same table as the Wideners, Thayers, and Carters.
It is not clear where Captain Smith exactly was when the Titanic struck the iceberg. He came onto the Bridge rather quickly asking what they had struck. It is possible that he was in his sitting room and when the iceberg struck and when he felt the collision and rushed immediately to the Bridge. "What have we struck?" he asked. "An iceberg, sir," Murdoch replied. Murdoch then gave him the brief rundown of what had just happened. Smith rushed to the Starboard wing of the Bridge where he hoped to see the iceberg but saw nothing. He then turned to 4th Officer Boxhall and ordered him to inspect the ship. He also turned to Quartermaster Alfred Olliver who was on the Bridge at that time and ordered him to tell the carpenter to sound the ship. While they were gone, Chief Officer Wilde who had been inspecting the bow came up to Captain Smith and told him what two crew members told him, that air was escaping in the Forepeak Tank (which meant that water was flooding the Tank Top). The carpenter was already in the process of sounding the ship when Olliver got to where he was and returned to the Bridge. As soon as he got there, Captain Smith ordered him to give Chief Engineer Joseph Bell a message which was written down on paper. When it was delivered, Bell said that it would be done as soon as possible. We may never know what was in that message, although I suspect that it may have been an order to put out the fires in the boilers to prevent a thermal explosion. Olliver returned to the Bridge and delivered Bell's reply to Captain Smith and Chief Officer Wilde immediately after that ordered him to help the other crew members with the lifeboats. Boxhall, while Olliver was delivering the message to Bell, returned to the Bridge. Possibly feeling that the inspection was too quick, Captain Smith ordered him back down to ask the ship's carpenter to sound the ship (perhaps to make sure that the carpenter was doing his job or get another one to do the same thing). On his way down, Boxhall ran into one of the carpenters who said that the ship was making water. The carpenter continued his ascent to the Bridge where he reported what was happening to Captain Smith. Boxhall continued down where he ran into one of the mail clerks (John Smith) who said that the mail hold was full and asked where the captain was. Boxhall told him, "On the Bridge". Boxhall then said, "Well, you go and report it to the captain and I will go down and see." Boxhall proceeded and found the mail hold filling and the mail clerks hard at work to save the mail. Boxhall went back up to the Bridge and reported what he found to Captain Smith.
While he was waiting for the Boxhall and Olliver to return, J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line, showed up, having been awakened by the impact of the collision. He asked Captain Smith what they had struck and he told him. "Do you think the ship is seriously damaged?" Ismay asked. "I'm afraid so," said Smith.
When Captain Smith learned that water was coming in, he called for Thomas Andrews, the ship's designer, to inspect the ship. While he was waiting for Andrews (whose cabin was just of the Aft Grand Staircase towards the stern) to get there, Captain Smith went into the Wireless Room which was down the hall from the Bridge near the Officer's Quarters and told the Marconi Operators that they had struck an iceberg and that they had better get ready to send out the call for help. At that time, Jack Phillips was at the key and Harold Bride who had just woken up was begging Phillips to go to bed. Andrews got to the Bridge and the two of them along with several officers went down below decks and inspected the ship. Both of them inspected the ship for about 3 compartments and then Captain Smith went up to the Bridge while Andrews continued the inspection. Andrews ran up the Grand Staircase upon learning the terrible fate of the ship and informed Captain Smith on the Bridge that the damage was too much for the ship to handle and that she was going down.
In and interview before the Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage, someone asked the Captain Smith if the courage and bravery of seamen in the face of death like the stories of old. Captain Smith answered, "If a disaster like that to the Birkenhead happened, they would as those men go down." What he said then was being put to the test now.
From that time on, Captain Smith was unusually indecisive and cautious, yet still active. It is safe to say that he was in shock that this was happening. He put so much confidence in these ships and was so sure of himself. Only a few years before, he said, "I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that." He was on what was said to be his last voyage before retiring. He never had a ship sink from under him during his whole career. Why should this voyage of all the ships and voyages he's commanded go wrong like this?
Captain Smith seems to have gone from one side to the other, initially supervising the preperation and launching of the lifeboats.
After they were done readying the lifeboats on the Port side, Captain Smith and 2nd Officer Lightoller were standing near one boat and either Smith or Lightoller made the comment that the sails and masts would have to be removed from the boats (I think this was to make more room for people). The person speaking then turned to 1st class passenger Maj. Arthur Peuchen and said, "You might give us a hand". Peuchen did just that.
While they were lowering Boat No. 6, Quartermaster Hichens who was in charge of the lifeboat had Lightoller who was directing everything to stop lowering the boat which at that point was almost level with C Deck. He complained about not being able to manage the lifeboat with one sailor (Lookout Fleet). Lightoller asked for volunteers and Peuchen stepped forward saying, "Can I be of any assistance? I am a yachtsman, and can handle a boat with an average man." Lightoller agreed to let him in. At this point, Captain Smith who was with Lightoller advised Peuchen saying, "You had better go down below and break a window and get in through a window, into the boat." Peuchen didn't think that that was feasible and so he instead swung himself down on a rope. This advise from Smith was surprisingly bad. It would indicate that he was in shock and not thinking clearly.
Boxhall after helping with the boats a little went and got distress rockets. Both he and Quartermaster Rowe fired rockets, hoping to attract the attention of a ship whose lights were seen in the distance. Boxhall pointed out the ship in the distance to Captain Smith and he remained with them throughout most of the time that they were signalling. The steamer seemed to be coming towards them and when it looked like it came close enough, they also got out the Morse lamp and Captain Smith said to him, "Tell him to come at once, we are sinking". All efforts to contact the ship proved fruitless, unfortunately. When they had sent off the last rocket they would send that night, Captain Smith told Rowe to get into Collapsible C which was being loaded at that time. He was put in charge of it. Boxhall went over to the Port side and assisted with loading and lowering of more boats. We next find Captain Smith standing in the entrance of the wheelhouse, apparently supervising the loading and lowering of the boats. Boxhall went up to him and Captain Smith, referring to Boat No. 2, said, "You must get into that boat and get away." Boxhall did as he was commanded and escaped the sinking liner.
Captain Smith seems to have gone around the ship for the last half hour to release the crew from their duties and save themselves. He must have started with the Marconi Room. Bride said that Captain Smith came in and told them, "Men, you have done your full duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it's every man for himself."
After he went out of the Marconi Room, he crossed through his quarters for the final time and came out to the Starboard side on the Bridge. On his way out, he stopped and had a final brief word with Thomas Andrews. Mess Steward Cecil Fitzpatrick mentioned that they conversed on the Bridge while he was going help those on Collapsible A.
He went out to where they were working on getting Collapsible A down from the roof of the Officer's Quarters. According to Steward Edward Brown, Captain Smith told them, "Well boys, do your best for the women and children, and look out for yourselves."
He walked across the Bridge to the other side where he relayed the same message to the crew on the Port side where they had just gotten Collapsible B down. Fireman James McGann said, “I was helping to get off a collapsible boat. The last one launched when the water began to break over the bridge on which Captain Smith stood. When the water reached Captain Smith's knees and the last boast was at least 20 feet away from the ship, I was standing beside him. He gave one look all around, his face firm and his lips hard set. He looked as if he was trying to keep back the tears, as he thought of the doomed ship. I felt mightily like crying as I looked at him. Suddenly he shouted: 'Well boys, you've done your duty and done it well. I ask no more of you. I release you. You know the rule of the sea. It's every man for himself now, and God bless you'.'' 2nd class passenger W.J. Mellors said, Captain Smith jumped from the Bridge and said to the officers and crew, "You have done your duty, boys. Now every man for himself." There are several accounts which vary on the exact last words that Captain Smith said, but they are basically the same which gives credibility to these stories and makes it almost certain that he spent his final moments on board there.
Edward Brown in his account mentioned that Captain Smith had a megaphone in his hand. It is possible that he used it on the Port side which would be why he was heard by so many there but he didn't use it on the Starboard side which would be why not as many people heard him (and the fact that they were trying to launch the a two ton boat on that possible as soon as possible).
Being so recognizable with his white beard and so famous, it is not surprising that so many people mentioned him in the last moments. Unfortunately, we don't know exactly what happened to him. After he released his the people on board, nearly all of the survivors' accounts say that he stayed on the Port side near the Bridge. What happened after that is a mystery. 2nd Officer Lightoller said mentioned in the American Inquiry that he briefly saw Captain Smith cross the Bridge headed for the Port side. Harold Bride said, "I now assisted in pushing off a collapsible lifeboat (Collapsible B), which was on the port side of the forward funnel, onto the boat deck. Just as the boat fell I noticed Captain Smith dive from the bridge into the sea." James McGann said, "He held the child under one arm as he jumped into the sea and endeavored to reach the nearest lifeboat with the child. I took the other child in my arms as I was swept from the bridge deck. When I was compelled to release my hold on the child, and I am satisfied that the same thing happened to Captain Smith. I had gone down to the bridge deck to assist in lowering a collapsible boat. The water was then coming over the bridge, and we were unable to launch the boat properly. It was overturned and was used as a life raft, for some thirty of us, mostly firemen, clinging to it. Captain Smith looked as though he was trying to keep back tears as he thought of the doom of the ship." 1st class passenger Robert Daniel said, "I saw Captain Smith on the bridge. My eyes seemingly clung to him. The deck from which I had leapt was immersed. The water had risen slowly, and was now to the floor of the bridge. Then it was to Captain Smith’s waist. I saw him no more. He died a hero."
I suspect that because he was seen near the Bridge when water was coming up, that he went down at the wheel as so many captains of sinking ships are heroically portrayed. I don't believe that Captain Smith went down in the Bridge. Many people that were in the area said that he leaped into the sea. Archibald Gracie, 2nd Officer Lightoller, and Jack Thayer seem to be the main witnesses on what happened next but they didn't see Captain Smith after that. However, Gracie's account mentions that there were men on Collapsible B that said that they saw Captain Smith in the water. There is a story that came out afterwards that said that Captain Smith gave a baby to those on the Collapsible B and when he was offered a place, he refused and swam away. I doubt that this story is true because it seems that the baby would have died within seconds if not a couple of minutes after being in the water because it was so cold and the baby's body would not have adjusted well to the temperatures. Many other stories also came out. Some even said that he committed suicide (with the good Captain being so recognizable, if he had shot himself, there would be many credible witnesses saying that he killed himself if he did).
It appears that Cameron's film got the portrayal of Captain Smith wrong (even though Bernard Hill's acting was excellent). He was in shock, but not incompetent. He supervised the launching and lowering of the boats and did what he could to reach another ship. He didn't stand around and do nothing like in Cameron's film.
My conclusion is that he died like a sailor. During the sinking, he probably was in shock that such a thing as the Titanic's sinking could happen. When water came up, I suspect that he didn't jump as some said, but instead intended to go down with the ship but was carried up by the water washing him off which might have given him the appearance of jumping off (Bride was after all about 40-60 feet away in the midst of chaos and very little light). I also believe that with several survivors mentioning that Captain Smith was in the water, it is possible that he was seen by survivors either on their way to Collapsible B or while they were clinging to Collapsible B. With it being so dark and so much going on, it is understandable why not many would see him. Either way, he died like a man and sailor. He did his duty and attempted to save as many lives as possible that were under his charge. For that, he deserves a lot of respect and honor.