John Barry fought for his adoptive country at sea and presided at the birth of the U.S. Navy
Royal Navy Lieutenant Richard Boger was vexed. The commander of the eight-gun sloop tender HMS Edward had been chasing an unidentified merchantman since just after dawn on April 7, 1776. He had finally overtaken the vessel off the Delaware Capes, but it refused to lay to, even in response to a warning shot fired across its bow. Certain the stranger was running contraband for the rebellious American colonies, the British officer directed his helmsman to pull Edward alongside and then, yelling across the gap, ordered the mystery ship to submit or risk being sunk.
The response was not what he expected.
Hardly had the words left Boger’s lips when the colors of the Continental Navy broke atop the other ship’s mast. Almost simultaneously gun ports opened along the “merchantman’s” starboard side, eight cannons rumbled out and a thundering broadside hammered Edward’s rigging. The British vessel shuddered under the impact, and its gunners scrambled to return fire. For more than an hour the warships traded blows at nearly point-blank range, and though both suffered in the exchange, Boger realized further battle would result in Edward’s destruction. He therefore ordered its guns silenced and colors struck. The sloop tender thus became the first vessel of the Royal Navy to surrender to an American man-of-war.
That ship was the 16-gun brigantine USS Lexington. Its captain was John Barry.
The man Americans would later acknowledge as a founding father of the U.S. Navy was born in County Wexford, Ireland, on March 25, 1745.
Like many young Irish Catholics living in a land ruled by the Protestant English, John Barry was poor from birth and had few prospects. Almost the only route to a better life was to leave Ireland—either through emigration or by going to sea. When Barry was 9 years old, his parents chose the second option for him, using family connections—an uncle was a ship’s captain—to secure him a billet as a cabin boy. A quick learner, the boy quickly absorbed the skills that would stand him in good stead the rest of his life.
After some years at sea, 15-year-old Barry immigrated to America. There again family connections helped him, at least for a while, as he initially lived in Philadelphia with a female relative and her husband. He didn’t rely on their generosity for long, however, for he soon found employment with maritime merchants and in 1766 was offered his first command of a vessel. Barry continued to advance in his maritime career and by 1775 was in command of Black Prince, one of newest and largest merchantmen operating from Philadelphia. During one Atlantic crossing in Black Prince Barry set a record by traveling 237 miles by dead reckoning in a 24-hour period—the fastest known sailing day recorded in the 1700s. Tragedy had struck at home in 1774, however, when his wife of six years, the former Mary Cleary, died.
The years 1774 and 1775 proved difficult for other reasons. Increasing tensions between Britain and its American colonies worried Philadelphia’s ship captains. During the course of several commercial voyages to British ports Barry personally experienced the condescension with which some Englishmen regarded the “disloyal” colonists on the other side of the Atlantic. An ardent supporter of his adopted homeland and its quest for independence, Barry knew he could not remain neutral in any conflict that might erupt between the Crown and the colonies.
He could never imagine just how important a role he was destined to play.
The Second Continental Congress convened for the first time in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, seeking to address the myriad issues surrounding the creation of an independent nation from Britain’s North American colonies. The delegates made many important decisions, but the one that most directly affected Barry transpired on October 13—the day delegates authorized the establishment of the Continental Navy. That authorization made provision for the purchase of two merchant vessels and their conversion into the new service’s first warships.
Merchantmen in the days of sail were intended to make money for their owners and thus tended to have smaller crews and fewer sails than warships. The ships Congress selected for the new Continental Navy, therefore, had to be re-rigged to accommodate more sail, and Barry was tapped to oversee the process for one of those vessels, the brig Defiance. Following its conversion and commissioning as USS Andrew Doria, Barry was assigned to also manage the re-rigging of the second ship, a vessel he already knew well—his former command Black Prince. With a new sail plan, strengthened hull and cannons set behind newly constructed gun ports, the ship was commissioned as USS Alfred. It went on to see service under the command of John Paul Jones before falling prize to the British in 1778 and being put it into Royal Navy service under the same name.
As useful as Barry’s expertise had been in the conversion of the merchant vessels, it was his skill as a seaman that led the Continental Congress to decide he was too valuable to be wasted ashore. On Dec. 7, 1775, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Continental Navy. His first wartime command would be the brigantine USS Lexington, then undergoing conversion in Philadelphia. In addition to re-rigging, the work included the addition of 14 four-pounder cannons, two 6-pounder cannons and a dozen swivel guns. The work was completed by the spring of 1776, and on the last day of March Barry and his 110-man crew took Lexington to war.
The first obstacle for the newly minted Continental warship was HMS Roebuck, a 44-gun man-of-war patrolling the mouth of the Delaware River. Outgunned and unwilling to engage the British vessel, Barry skirted around his heavier adversary by keeping to shallow waters where it could not follow. Having eluded Roebuck, Barry went in search of prey. He found it—or rather, it found him—on April 7.
The capture of Edward—and the British merchantmen Lady Susan and Betsy over the subsequent weeks—earned Barry and crew the adoration of Philadelphians on their return to port in late September. Barry was reassigned to command the 28-gun frigate Effingham, then under construction. While waiting for it to be fitted out, Barry and many of his prospective crewmen volunteered for duty ashore with George Washington’s army. In that capacity Barry helped facilitate the crossing of the Delaware, participated in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and served as a courier for Washington, carrying dispatches to British Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis under a flag of truce.
Barry returned to Philadelphia in the summer of 1777, both to oversee the completion of Effingham and, on July 7, to marry Sarah Austin. Tempering the newlyweds’ bliss was the fact that British forces under General Sir William Howe were steadily advancing on the de facto American capital. By mid-September the situation had worsened to the point Barry was ordered to get the still unfinished Effingham out of Philadelphia and seek a safe anchorage along the upper reaches of the Delaware. Soon after the frigate got under way a smaller vessel came alongside and an individual (possibly Barry’s Tory brother-in-law William Austin) came aboard with an astounding offer. The man promised Effingham’s commander 20,000 gold guineas plus command of a Royal Navy ship if he would surrender the frigate to the British. Barry had no interest and in his Irish brogue angrily “spurned the eyedee of being a treater.”
Though Barry was safely upriver when Howe’s troops marched into Philadelphia on September 26, Effingham remained bottled up on the Delaware with little likelihood of ever reaching the sea. Badly in need of men to crew the American warships that remained at liberty, and fearful the British might capture Effingham for their own use, Washington ordered Barry to scuttle the frigate. Barry was disgusted with the command. Not until November 30—four weeks after having received the order, and only after repeated appeals to the Navy Board—did he comply. Even then Navy Board chair Francis Hopkinson himself insisted on overseeing removal of plugs from through-holes in Effingham’s hull. A sullen Barry watched from shore as the frigate settled into the shallows just below Bordentown, N.J. Passing British troops later burned the ship to the waterline.
With Howe in Philadelphia and America’s largest frigates scuttled, it would take men of courage and uncommon creativity to strike at the British. Barry rose to the occasion, first attacking vessels of the Royal Navy with the few small craft available—rowboats, barges and longboats. Despite the odds, he was remarkably successful, capturing several British vessels, destroying others and garnering useful intelligence. He also managed to slip across the river to New Jersey and burn forage intended for British cavalry and artillery horses.
Though pleased with Barry’s successes, the Continental Congress decided he would be far more valuable to the war effort if provided with a ship better suited to his talents. On May 30, 1778, the Navy Board assigned him command of the 32-gun USS Raleigh. Barry’s tenure aboard the frigate was relatively brief, however, for after departing Boston on September 25 as an escort for two small merchantmen, Raleigh came under pursuit by the 50-gun ship of the line HMS Experiment and 20-gun post ship HMS Unicorn. Barry ordered the merchantmen back to port while he lured the British warships north. Forty-eight hours into the chase Unicorn fired a broadside that carried away two of Raleigh’s topmasts, rendering it unable to elude its pursuers. A fierce gun battle followed, though with nightfall Barry was able to break contact and seek shelter among a group of islands off the coast of Maine. When both British ships caught up and re-engaged, Barry purposely ran Raleigh aground, intending to burn it before it could be captured. Though the British managed to thwart the planned scuttling and capture Raleigh, Barry and most of his crew escaped by rowboat, making it back to Boston in early October.
Anxious to return to sea, Barry accepted command of the 10-gun brig Delaware, a privateer out of Philadelphia. After securing a letter of marque from Congress on Feb. 15, 1779, he directed a small fleet of privateers, that summer leading two successful raiding excursions to and from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. But his heart was in the nascent Navy, and in August 1780 he took command of the 36-gun USS Alliance. The frigate already boasted a colorful war record, having been part of a squadron sent to France under John Paul Jones. Alliance had participated in the storied Battle of Flamborough Head, which pitted Jones’ Bonhomme Richard against HMS Serapis. Under Barry the frigate would have the distinction of fighting the Continental Navy’s final battle.
Though Barry longed to get back into the fight, his first mission as commander of Alliance was to transport a party of VIPs to France. The group included Colonel John Laurens—America’s newly appointed envoy to Paris—and leading revolutionary thinker Thomas Paine. Ordered to cross the Atlantic quickly and avoid contact with enemy forces, Barry departed Boston on Feb. 11, 1781. After an eventful voyage—including a struggle with sea ice, the suppression of a planned mutiny by British-born sailors and, despite orders, the capture of an English privateer—Barry brought Alliance into Lorient on March 9.
Barry and crew remained in port nearly three weeks. When Alliance left for home on March 29, it was escorting a merchantman bearing arms and uniforms destined for the Continental Army. What should have been a straightforward voyage turned into something of a fiasco, however, after a pair of British privateers attacked Alliance and its charge on April 2. Barry captured both brigs, but the master he put in charge of one of the prizes absconded to France with the ship, and the merchantman defected soon after. The other prize got separated from Alliance in bad weather, though it dutifully sailed on to the Delaware Capes. Barry’s search for the ships and lightning damage to Alliance’s main-topmast kept the frigate at sea longer than its captain had intended. But his troubles weren’t over. Barry had to put down yet another brewing mutiny, and the cumulative delays led to one of the most close-run battles of Barry’s career.
At sunrise on May 29 two British sloops of war—the 16-gun Atalanta and 14-gun Trepassey—caught up to Alliance. The smaller, more maneuverable enemy vessels initially had the advantage. The wind had died, immobilizing the frigate, while the sloops were able to use sweeps (long oars) to position themselves on Alliance’s aft quarters and pound away at will. Lacking sweeps, the American vessel was unable to bring its main batteries to bear, at most a gun or two at a time. Barry defended the vessel as best he could, even after being struck in the shoulder by grapeshot, but he soon lost consciousness from blood loss, and crewmen carried him below. As the fight intensified, Barry’s second-in-command sought permission from the semiconscious commander to strike their colors. Barry angrily refused. “No, sir, the thunder!” he growled. “If this ship cannot be fought without me, I will be brought on deck. To your duty, sir.” Fortunately, a breath of wind picked up soon afterward, enabling Alliance to swivel toward its antagonists and brings its main guns to bear. The frigate mercilessly pounded the sloops until both struck their colors.
Following his victory over Atalanta and Trepassey—and after recuperating from his wounds—Barry was tasked with a prestigious mission. The surrender of British forces at Yorktown, Va., on October 19 had effectively ended the ground combat phase of the American Revolutionary War in North America, and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, had chosen to return to France. Alliance was to transport him and his retinue. Barry got the ship under way from Boston on Christmas Eve. After disembarking the French party in early January 1782, Barry chose to remain in European waters, harassing British shipping in cooperation with the French until returning to the East Coast in May. Through late fall Alliance operated primarily in the Caribbean, capturing several enemy vessels before heading to France on favorable winds.
Leaving Lorient in early December, Barry shaped a course for the West Indies and arrived in Martinique in early January 1783. From there he was ordered to Cuba, where Alliance was to take on a most unusual cargo—a fortune in Spanish dollars bound for the Continental Congress. On arrival in Havana, Barry found work crews had already loaded the treasure aboard the 20-gun armed transport USS Duc de Lauzun, and Alliance was tasked with escorting its sister ship to Philadelphia. The American vessels were unable to leave Cuba until early March, and once again a delay put Barry in harm’s way.
Almost immediately after leaving Havana, Alliance and Duc de Lauzun found that two British frigates, the 32-gun Alarm and 28-gun Sibyl, were shadowing them. Bearing for the Carolinas, Barry and his charge were initially able to elude the enemy. But on March 10 Alarm and Sibyl—joined by the sloop of war HMS Tobago—caught up with the American ships off Florida’s east coast. When Sibyl fired on the trailing Duc de Lauzun, Barry furiously defended the smaller treasure vessel in a running fight with the British sloop, eventually driving off all three attackers. The clash turned out to be the last sea battle of the war and the last fought by a ship of the Continental Navy.
At war’s end in September 1783 there was little official interest in maintaining a navy, and under the Articles of Confederation the central government was not really capable of doing so. Following the 1785 dissolution of the Continental Navy and the sale of its ships, John Barry returned to his prewar occupation as a merchant captain, undertaking several highly profitable voyages to China.
The nascent nation’s lack of a formal navy emboldened the Barbary pirates, who attacked American merchant ships with impunity in the western Mediterranean and in the Atlantic off the northwest coast of Africa. Their depredations and the 1789 implementation of the Constitution prompted Congress to formally establish the U.S. Navy in March 1794. Barry received the first commission with the rank of commodore, thus holding the distinction of being both the first commissioned officer and first flag officer in the sea service. During the 1798–1800 Quasi-War with France Barry commanded the 44-gun USS United States, capturing several French privateers and later transporting American envoys to France to end the undeclared conflict.
As commander of United States Barry also helped train many officers—including Richard Somers and Stephen Decatur Jr.—who would go on to greater things in battle against the Barbary pirates and in the War of 1812. His challenging years at sea had prematurely aged the commodore, however, forcing him to leave active service in March 1801. Barry remained in official command of the Navy until his death in Philadelphia on Sept. 13, 1803.
John Barry was the quintessential naval officer. A fine seaman in both peace and war, he oversaw the birth of the Continental Navy, captured dozens of enemy ships, trained countless younger officers aboard his commands and remained loyal to his adopted homeland despite offers of rank and fortune were he to switch sides.
All things considered, despite his relative obscurity, Commodore Barry amply deserves the moniker “Father of the U.S. Navy”—a title he shares with Captain John Paul Jones and President John Adams. Not bad shipmates.
David Harris is a first-time contributor to Military History. For further reading he recommends John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail, by Tim McGrath; Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, by Ian W. Toll; and George Washington’s Secret Navy, by James L. Nelson.