Father of the United States Navy


1745 was a busy year in the history of the misnamed British Isles, with Bonnie Prince Charlie doing his best to end the reign of the Hanover Dynasty in England, so I guess it is excusable that no note was taken of the birth date of John Barry in Tacumshane, County Wexford, Ireland. During his childhood John received, along with all the other excellent reasons given to Irish Catholics over the centuries to love Britannia, good reason to look askance at the British when his father was evicted from his poor little farm by their British landlord, and the family went to live in the village of Rosslare. Yet the nameless landlord, completely unintentionally of course, did John a good turn, because it was in Rosslare that young John found his life’s calling: the Sea. Nicholas Barry, his uncle, lived there and was captain of a fishing skiff. John decided to follow in the footsteps of his uncle and seek his fortunes on water.

This was a completely rational choice on the part of John. The British imposed penal laws, summarized by the great Edmund Burke as follows: “For I must do it justice; it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts. It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” Rendered helots in their own land, almost all ambitious Irish Catholic lads and lasses had to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Additionally, for a poor ambitious young man in Europe in the Eighteenth Century, the Sea offered a path to wealth and social advancement. If he was willing to work hard, learn to read, and learn enough math to chart the course of a ship, a poor sailor, with luck, could rise to be captain of a ship one day. Compensation for the crew of a merchant vessel was often based on a share of the profits, with the merchants who bankrolled the vessel usually taking between a half to two-thirds with the remainder being divided among the crew: the greater the rank, the larger the share. An able captain could eventually become a wealthy merchant. His daughters might marry into the aristocracy. His sons might become wealthy bankers and eventually be ennobled if they played their political cards right. Although this path was precluded to Irish Catholics by the anti-Catholic Test Act, a poor sailor in the Royal Navy might end his days as an admiral, and there were always a few admirals in the Royal Navy in the Eighteenth Century who had begun their careers in just such a fashion. However, if the Sea offered opportunities it also had severe risks. Life aboard ship was cramped and unpleasant, with bad food and putrid water tossed in as a garnish. Discipline was often brutal and risk to life and limb was an every day occurence. According to Dr. Samuel Johnson, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” Ports were filled with crippled sailors who eked out a miserable existence with any light work they could get, selling wood carvings and begging. As Lord Nelson noted, the average British sailor, due to a hard life, was dead by forty-five.

Defying all challenges, John flourished at sea. Flying through the ranks of cabin boy, seaman, able seaman and a mate’s rating, he proved himself tough and determined. It also didn’t hurt that he was as strong as a sea-going ox, and grew into a giant of a man, standing six foot and four inches in a time when the average height of an adult male was five feet and five inches. During his career he would suppress three mutinies aboard his ships single handedly, and his great physical strength was a key asset in the very rough world afloat. In 1766 he achieved his dream of becoming a captain and skippered the Barbados with a home port of Philadelphia. It was on the Barbados that he began his habit, that he kept up in peace and war, in having the day start with a reading from the Bible to the crew. Captain Barry fell in love with Phillie, a town where he could freely practice his Catholic faith, and a bustling, prosperous port. Barry specialized in the West Indies trade and enhanced his reputation around town when it was noted that he successfully sailed various ships to and from the Indies in nine profitable voyages. In 1772 he was placed in command of the merchant vessel Peg owned by one of foremost mercantile houses in Philadelphia, and in 1774 he began a life-long collaboration and friendship with Robert Morris, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, and who earned the title Financier of the Revolution by putting his considerable financial skills at the service of his country during the War for Independence. Barry was assigned command of the 200 ton Black Prince in 1774 and in that year set a speed record that endured throughout the Eighteenth Century, traveling 237 miles in a 24 hour period. As he grew in wealth he never forgot his humble origins. Early in his career as a ship captain he joined the Charitable Captains of Ships Club, an organization dedicated to supporting the widows and orphans of sailors. Not only Barry’s financial life prospered but also his personal life. In 1767 he married Mary Clary, a Protestant, at Old Saint Joseph’s Chapel. She converted to the Faith during their marriage and died tragically at 29 in 1774 while John was away at sea. In 1777 he married Sarah Keen Austin. Sally as she was called, also converted to the Faith, and although their marriage was not blessed with children, they joyfully raised two of John’s nephews after his sister Eleanor died. The Barrys attended mass at Old Saint Joseph’s, Old Saint Mary’s and Saint Augustine’s in Philadelphia.

As soon as John Barry returned to America in 1775 from his latest merchant voyage, he volunteered his services in defense of his adoptive homeland. If the colonists faced long odds on land, disorganized colonial militias and a fledgling Continental Army confronting the well-trained Royal Army and a British Treasury that had limitless funds to hire mercenaries from Germany, the war at sea appeared hopeless for the Americans. The Royal Navy was the largest Navy in the world, their seamen were the best sailors, and their officers the finest in the world. However the Americans were not completely defenseless at sea. The New England colonies had a long seagoing tradition. Letters of marque and reprisal were issued by the Continental Congress and the new state governments, and the seas soon swarmed with Yankee privateers attacking the British merchant fleet. By the end of the war American privateers had taken about 600 British ships, thus doing huge damage to British commerce. The British also armed privateers to attack American merchants, but with less success since the American merchants were usually armed and would rarely submit without a fight. This often overlooked aspect of the American Revolution is set forth well in the modern “sea chantey” Barrett’s Privateers.

Although privateering proved damaging to the British long term, the Americans also founded a Navy, and it was in this service that Barry rose to fame. Hopelessly outnumbered, the United States Navy fought a gallant, and surprisingly successful, struggle. The spirit of daring that motivated many American naval captains was summed up well in this passage from a letter of John Paul Jones: “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way.”

No one, including the legendary Jones himself, typified this spirit among the officers of the new Navy more than John Barry. Barry was placed in command of the USS Lexington, 14 guns, on December 7, 1775. Captain Barry took the Lexington on its maiden voyage on March 26, 1776. On April 7, 1776, Barry had his initial victory of the war, taking H.M.S. sloop Edward after a short but fierce engagement. This was the first naval victory of the new Continental Navy. On July 27th, 1776 Barry captured the British privateer Lady Susan. Early in September the Lexington took the British sloop Betsy. Late in 1776 Captain Barry was placed in command of the USS Effingham, a frigate of 32 guns. At about this time Barry received an offer from a British spy. Turn the Effingham over to the British and he would be paid 20,000 pounds sterling and a commission in the Royal Navy. Barry indignantly refused the offer, stating that “Not the value and the command of the entire British fleet can lure me from the cause of my country.” Being a sailor and Irish, I have no doubt some other colorful choice phrases issued from him on this occasion. A lull occurring in the naval war during the winter of 1776-77, Barry organized a company of volunteers and fought under Washington at Trenton and Princeton.

In early 1777 Barry was placed in command of the port of Philadelphia and busied himself preparing its naval defense. The space of a blog post does not allow me to go into detail as to the brilliant operations conducted by Barry on the Delaware River after the British captured Philadelphia. Suffice it to say that he continually impeded the progress of the British fleet up the Delaware and remained a constant menace to the British as long as they occupied Philadelphia. On March 8,1778, Barry, commanding a “fleet” of row boats, barges and long boats, surprised and captured on the Delaware two armed sloops, an armed schooner and several transports. The captured transports yielded much needed supplies for the Continental Army This action caused General Washington to send this letter to Captain Barry. “Head Quarters 12th March 1778. Sir, I have received your Letter of the 9th. inst. and congratulate you upon the success which crowned your gallantry and address, in the late Attack upon the Enemys Ships – altho circumstances prevented you from reaping the full benefit of your conquest, there is ample consolation in the degree of Glory which you have acquired – You will be pleased to accept of my sincere thanks, for the good things which you have been so polite as to send me, with my wishes that suitable Success may always attend your Bravery. I am Sir Your most obedt Servt. Go: Washington”

Captain Barry was given command on May 30, 1778 of the USS Raleigh. In an ill-fated voyage, Barry encountered a British fleet and after a 48 hour chase and a 7 hour battle, he was forced to abandon ship off the coast of Maine. Captain Barry saved most of his crew but the Raleigh was captured. Barry received a commendation for his gallantry during this action.

Being temporarily without a Continental Navy command due to lack of ships, Barry accepted command of the privateer Delaware, 12 guns, on February 18, 1779. During his cruise in this vessel, he captured HMS Harlem, a sloop of war of 14 guns. In November of 1780 Barry was given command of the frigate USS Alliance, 32 guns. On April 2 , 1781 he captured the brig HMS Mars, 22 guns, and the brig HMS Minerva, 12 guns. In a spectacular battle on May 28, 1781, the Alliance defeated in a simultaneous battle two British sloops of war, HMS Atalanta and HMS Trepassey. Barry was severely wounded in the battle. It says much of the man that as he was being treated for his wounds he said this to British Captain Edwards who tendered his sword, “I return it to you, Sir. You have merited it, and your King ought to give you a better ship. Here is my cabin, at your service. Use it as your own.” Captain Barry remained in command of the Alliance till the end of the war. He fought the last sea battle of the Continental Navy on March 10, 1783 off Cape Canaveral when the Alliance defeated HMS Sybylle in order to protect the Duc de Lauzon, a transport carrying 72,000 spanish silver dollars to the Continental Congress. The Sybylle surrended, but due to other British ships chasing the Alliance, Barry could not take it as a prize. John Barry thus began and ended the war at sea for the Continental Navy with victories.

 After the war Barry returned to the merchant trade and helped to open up trade between America and China. His country called upon him again on June 5, 1794 when Secretary of War Henry Knox advised Barry that he had been chosen to be senior Captain of the United States Navy. Barry supervised the construction of the frigates authorized under the Naval Act of 1794. During the Quasi War with France, Barry was addressed by the courtesy title of Commodore due to his seniority whenever he commanded a squadron of American ships. He thus became the first naval officer of flag rank in American history. In command of the frigate USS United States, he took several armed French vessels and exercised operational command of the American squadrons in the West Indies during the war. Considering that this post now exceeds 2000 words I will forego a detailed description of his actions in this war, except to note that it was through his training of young officers who went on to distinguish themselves in the War against the Barbary Pirates and the War of 1812 that he became known as the Father of the Navy, and that the US Navy was victorious in the Quasi War. Barry retired in 1801. Shortly before his death he was offered command against the Barbary Pirates. For the first and only time in his life the old sailor had to decline the call to duty due to ill health. John Barry died on September 13, 1803 and was buried in the Old Saint Mary’s cemetary in 1803 in Philadelphia. Both of his wives are buried beside him, Sally Barry surviving him until 1831.

 There have been five US Naval vessels named after Barry. The latest is a guided missile destroyer. President Reagan proclaimed Commodore John Barry Day on August 20, 1981, to be observed each September 13. Commodore John Barry Day is one of the four official holidays observed by the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The finest tribute to Barry of course is the United States Navy, a service that continues to uphold the traditions of courage, determination, daring and victory he helped forge. Not bad for a poor boy from Ireland.

Published in: on February 18, 2010 at 6:17 am  Comments (3)  
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  1. Any good books on him?
    I may have found a new hero.

  2. Unfortunately all the biographies of Commodore Barry that I am aware of are quite old. He deserves an up to date biography. Below is a link to a 1908 biography on Amazon:


  3. My wife pointed out to me that a new bio is coming out for the Commodore on May 18:


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