A local war hero you might not recognize

Published 5:11 pm Monday, March 1, 2021

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Here is a story of a hero who I think deserves a historical marker in our town. His name is Lieutenant John Julius Guthrie, a white Navy officer. He was born in Washington April 15, 1815

A newspaper columnist once said, “Lieutenant John Julius Guthrie’s life should place him high on the list of national heroes.”

He was stationed aboard the USS Saratoga off the west coast of Africa on April 21,1861 while the rest of our country was on the doorstep of civil war.

The U.S. Navy had been active in the international suppression of slavery.

While political debate over the legality of slavery heated up back home, Cmdr. Alfred Taylor, commanding officer of the Saratoga, and his executive officer, Lt. Guthrie, were on the lookout for merchantmen engaged in the slave trade.

While at the mouth of the Congo River near Kabenda in West Africa, a report reached the Saratoga that a large ship loaded with slaves was hidden up -river. They soon learned the ship was the Nightingale. Despite her compassionate-sounding name, she was one of the most notorious slave ships. As second in command, Lt. Guthrie was chosen to handpick a boarding party and sail inland to capture the slave ship.

The mission was a success as the Nightingale held 961 enslaved people. After the slaves were released in Liberia, the Saratoga headed bak to the United States with her prize, (the Nightingale) in tow.

The Nightingale was the last slave ship the Navy captured. The African Slave Trade Patrol was part of the suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade between 1819 and the beginning of the Civil War.

Because of the Abolitionist movement in the United States, a squadron of Navy ships and cutters were assigned to catch slave traders. Lt. Guthrie’s Saratoga was the most renowned.

After he returned to the U.S., he served as a captain for the Confederate States Navy until the war ended.  When asked about the liberation of almost 1,000 enslaved people he helped free from being sold as slaves, he said in essence, ‘ it was the right thing to do.’

Guthrie’s success was honed from early childhood in Washington, N.C. as he was raised in a family rich in military tradition.

Samuel Guthrie, his great-grandfather, and two great uncles served in the Revolutionary War. Dr. John Wilburn Guthrie, his grandfather, was a surgeon in the War of 1812. His father, Dr. J.W. Guthrie, also was a respected U.S. Army surgeon who talked him into attending and getting an appointment at West Point.

After only a year, he switched to the Navy, entering as a midshipman in 1834. He continued in his career as a Naval officer. In 1875, Guthrie was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as the superintendent of the life-saving stations along the North Carolina-Virginia coasts. He died on November 25, 1877.

I am blessed to have discovered a great wealth of history right here in my hometown and to share the lives, legacies and stories of native born heroes like Lieutenant Guthrie and so many others.


Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the Executive Director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.