Monday, May 9, 2016

Commodore John Barry - Father of the United States Navy

by Arthur Russell

John Barry, who is regarded by many as the Father of the United States Navy, was born son of James and Ellen Barry, a Roman Catholic tenant farmer family at Ballysampson on Our Lady’s Island, in the parish of Tacumshane in County Wexford, Ireland. Here within sight of the Atlantic Ocean, which was destined to feature so largely in his future life, John’s parents James and Ellen and their young family eked a poverty-stricken living from a small farm rented from a local Anglo-Irish landlord. Inevitably — and as experienced by many families all over Ireland of the day — the farm's rent fell into arrears and the Barry family were evicted and forced to move to the nearby port town of Rosslare. Here, young John was employed by his uncle Nicholas Barry who owned a small fishing boat, and it was in Rosslare that John fell in love with the sea and its ways.

Ireland of the mid 18th century smouldered with resentment against the ruling class and government, many of whom were descendants of the Cromwellian “settlement” of Ireland of the previous century. This and subsequent imposition of anti-Catholic Penal Laws of the early 18th century, meant that families like the Barrys were seriously disadvantaged in terms of civil rights, land ownership, access to education and many professions. The town of Wexford itself had recent bitter memories of Oliver Cromwell’s visitation to the area in 1649, when some 3,000 unarmed men, women and children had been slaughtered by Roundhead soldiers in the aftermath of the capture of the town in what was an extension of the English Civil War to Ireland. Before the end of the 18th century (during the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798), continuing resentment in the rural population would manifest itself in a bloody conflict which affected South-eastern Ireland more than any other part of Ireland, resulting in thousands of deaths among John Barry’s friends and neighbours in Wexford and its hinterland.

John Barry goes to sea
In 1761, aged 15, John left Ireland as a cabin-boy on a ship bound for Jamaica. One version of his life-story tells that his first landfall in North America was his arrival in Philadelphia as second mate on a trading ship sometime in 1762. Due to the city’s relatively liberal attitude towards Catholicism and the fact that it was the foremost maritime centre of the colony, John made Philadelphia his home. 

By 1766, 21 year old Barry, by now an impressive 6 feet 4 inches tall with a physique to match, was given his first command on the schooner Barbados sailing from his adopted city. In 1768 he married Mary Cleary. Sadly, seven years into the marriage, Mary died in 1774, aged 29. To add to John's grief, her death ocurred while he was at sea. In 1777 he married Sarah Keen Austin in Old Christchurch, by the founder and Rector of the American Episcopal Church, Reverend William White. Sarah (called Sally by her friends), subsequently converted to Catholicism and the Barrys were active members of various Philadelphia’s Catholic communities (St Joseph’s, St Mary’s and St Augustine’s), during their married lives. They had no children, but took over the rearing of two boys of John’s deceased sister Eleanor in Wexford. The boys, Michael and Patrick Hayes, were transported from Ireland by Captain John Rossiter, a neighbour of John’s from Rosslare, who subsequently resumed being neighbour to the Barrys on the same street in Philadelphia.
(The Rossiter family plot lies alongside that of the Barrys in Old St Mary’s churchyard in Philadelphia).

The America the Barrys now called home, was a thriving colony of the expanding British Empire which had by then effectively seen off the French challenge to British hegemony in North America.

Storm clouds gather – The American War of Independence
But all was not well with the relationship between the burgeoning colony and the mother country. The 1760’s saw the imposition of a series of taxes by the Imperial parliament in London, which raised the issue of the lack of representation and consultation with those being impacted by the implementation of such impositions. As tensions rose, the dispatch of Imperial troops across the Atlantic to the colonies increased rather than decreased opposition to what colonists were increasingly coming to regard as unrepresentative government. The most notable incident which occurred in March 1770, was the Boston Massacre which saw 5 civilians shot by British soldiers. The outcome of this resulted in most of the unpopular taxes being scrapped followed by a marked reduction in tensions.But a Rubicon between mother country parliament and those it was determined to govern, had been crossed.

The situation was soon brought to a head by the incident called the Boston Tea Party where a group of colonists dumped caskets of tea into the sea from ships in Boston Harbour. The commodity was the property of the East India Tea Company and subject to the residual Tea Tax which had not been abolished. The official reaction set in motion a series of events which culminated in the 13 North American colonies forming the First Continental Congress in 1774 to represent their growing list of grievances to the King and his Parliament in London. Instead of engaging with this body, the Imperial response was to send more troops across the Atlantic, thereby making war inevitable. The first shots of the American War were fired during 1775 and was followed on July 4th 1776 by the Declaration of Independence which declared the North American colonies’ desire to go their own way.
The British response was to continue a military build-up.

John joins the fight for independence
John Barry was charged with preparing the First Continental Navy ships for the war to come, a task he did so well he was given a Captain’s commission in the newly formed Continental Navy by the Marine Committee. This was signed by President of Congress, John Hancock in March 1776. John’s first command was the brig Lexington. A month later he recorded the first capture of a British ship by a regularly commissioned American ship, after which he was awarded command of the 32 gun Effingham, then under construction in Philadelphia.

At this point he was approached by persons who supported the British, with an attractive offer of a ship’s command in His Majesty’s Navy, sweetened with a substantial financial bribe, to change his allegiance by defecting with the Effingham. It can be speculated that his hard memories of his deprived childhood in Ireland under British rule had a significant part to play in his indignant rejection of such a tempting offer. For better or worse, John Barry committed himself to the newly declared Republic and gruffly “spurned the eyedee of being a treater (= traitor)”.

On Christmas night (Dec 25th – 26th) 1776, at a time when the colonist cause and morale was at its lowest, Barry’s maritime expertise was utilised to ferry the revolutionary army across the Delaware river without alerting the British. This was the prequel to Washington’s morale boosting victory at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. 
In 1777 the British attacked Philadelphia, causing the Maritime Committee to order the scuttling of all its ships including the Effingham. Barry objected to this decision and asserted his readiness to defend the young fleet. In the event he was overruled but not without attracting the enmity of some of the Committee, particularly one Francis Hopkinson, who accused him of insubordination. Now without a ship, he had to rely on small craft to successfully disrupt the British supply lines, and did this with considerable success. In 1778, he led a group of seven barges and longboats in the capture of two British sloops and one schooner.

In August of that year he heard the sad news that his brother Patrick’s ship the Union, had disappeared after leaving the port of Bordeaux, France and was never seen again.

During a naval encounter off the coast of Newfoundland on May 28th 1781, Barry’s ship, the Alliance, engaged and captured two British sloops, Atlanta and Trespassy. During the 4 hour encounter, Barry sustained shoulder injuries which necessitated him leaving deck to have his wounds dressed before he could accept the surrender of the surviving British Captain Edwards.

Barry has the distinction of capturing the largest amount of prize money from a single voyage. The last sea battle of the war was on March 10th 1783, during Barry’s return from Havana as escort to the Spanish ship Duc de Lauzon which was carrying 72,000 Spanish silver dollars destined for the Continental Congress. Near Cape Canaveral Barry’s ship had to deal with the attack of the British frigate Sybil, which was lucky to escape having had its rigging, mast and hull badly damaged by Barry’s guns.

The war of independence over, Barry returned to maritime commerce in partnership with his young nephew, Patrick Hayes. Over a number of years he opened new trade routes between Philadelphia and China and the other parts of the Orient.

Final Years of service – establishing the US Navy
During the 1790’s, Secretary of War Henry Knox with the endorsement of the Senate, engaged Barry as Senior Captain of the Federal navy in establishing the American Navy as a permanent entity to defend the young republic from outside attack from pirates and others, most notably former allies France; though this war was never officially declared. (it is now referred to as a “Quasi War”!). Barry himself was in command of ships that captured several French merchantmen. His post was head squadron commander (Commodore) of the US Naval Station at Guadaloupe (1798-1801). His appointment was further reconfirmed by President Washington in a formal ceremony that took place on Washington's birthday in February 1797. The President stated he had special trust and confidence "in Commodore Barry's patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities." He or the infant Republic never had reason to regret the selection of Barry as head of the Navy. He played a vital role in establishing the earliest traditions of the US Navy - devotion to duty, honoring the flag, protecting the rights of the sovereign nation which was only beginning to find its way in the world.

During this “senior” phase of his naval career, Barry crucially proposed the creation of a Department of the Navy having separate Cabinet status from the Secretary of War. This was put into effect with the formation of the United States Department of the Navy in 1798. He also proposed the establishment of government-operated navy yards to service the needs of the developing Naval service.

Many of the heroes of the War of 1812, the first war the Republic had to engage in; were trained under Barry during this period. This along with his illustrious active service record from the war, earned from contemporaries the title "Father of the Navy".

Note - This particular epithet first appeared in a posthumous biography in Nicholas Biddle’s literary journal, Portfolio in 1813. The title is shared (?) with another early naval hero, John Paul Jones, who saw action during the war of Independence and who died in 1794.

John Barry’s death ( Sept 12th 1803)
John’s last day of active service is recorded as being March 6th 1801. Throughout his life, he suffered from an underlying asthmatic condition which was the immediate cause of his death at the age of 58 years in September 1803. His death occured in his home at Strawberry Hill, located 3 miles north of Philadelphia. He was buried with full military honours, in the churchyard of Old St Mary’s.

Following is an extract from John Barry’s epitaph, written by Dr Benjamin Rush, a signatory of the American Declaration of Independence:

He was born in the County of Wexford in Ireland
But America was the object of his patriotism
And the theatre of his usefulness
In the Revolutionary War which established the
Independence of the United States he
Bore an early and active part as a captain in their
Navy and after became its Commander-in-Chief

He fought often and once bled in the cause of Freedom

President J F Kennedy lays a wreath at the statue of John Barry
on the occasion of his visit to Wexford, Ireland in June 1963.
Arthur Russell is the Author of ‘Morgallion’, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland (1314), by the Scottish army under the leadership of Edward deBruce, who history considers to be the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history.
‘Morgallion’ has been awarded the indieBRAG Medallion and is available in paperback and e-book form.
More information available on website -


  1. It's always good to hear of things from 'the other side' as it were! Goodness, a man that tall must have had a permanent stoop or bumped head below deck! :-)
    I've been interested in HMS Rose (AKA Surprise) for many years as she was one of the main causes of putting an end to the smuggling enterprises pre Boston Tea Party - its a shame that most Brits (and Americans?) think the BTP was what started the whole thing off though.

  2. Think, sooner or later the break with the mother country would happen. The British House of Commons was never going to agree to a peaceful devolution of political control to the colonists whose sentiment was inexorably moving in the direction of total independence. History would repeat itself in Ireland (1916-1921); India (1948). Interestingly, the Proclamation of the Irish Rebellion of 1916, has many comparisons and expresses many of the sentiments articulated in the American Declaration of Independence. That is (potentially) a fitting subject for a future post.

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  4. Always glad to learn about a prominent figure in history that was previously unknown to me. Enjoyed the post!

  5. Wonderful post! I walked past the statue of Commodire Barry in Independence Hall most mornings on my way to work. Children love to mimic his pose.

  6. Thanks Diana. Salute the old Commodore for me as you pass next time. Maybe his pose is him trying to do Riverdance?


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