Capt. John Barry, Continental Navy

Capt. John Barry, Continental Navy
Courtesy of Austin Hepburn, Member, Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati

John Barry, “The Father of the Navy,” was the son of James Barry of Forth, County Wexford, Ireland, and was born on Good Friday, 1745. His father was said to have been a clerk in a malt-house who put his son to sea at an early age. Barry is often said to have come to this country “about 1760”. In a letter written in 1792 Barry said he had been here “thirty odd years”, and the first naval record found in Philadelphia shows he was Captain of the schooner Barbadoes on 2 October 1766.

By 1774 he commanded the largest of the American merchant vessels of the time, the Black Prince, and was abroad with her when the colonies adopted the non-importation agreement, effectively blocking Barry’s return until 13 October 1775 when his arrival in Philadelphia coincided with Congress’ resolve to fit out two armed cruisers, the Lexington and the Reprisal. Esek Hopkins got the Reprisal; Barry was given command of the Lexington. On 17 April 1776 he took the British tender Edward, the first capture in actual battle by an American warship.

Barry was placed seventh on the list of Continental Captains on 10 October 1777 and was given command of the Effingham, 32 guns, but the occupation of Philadelphia and the subsequent closing of the Delaware River prevented his going out. With four small boats he managed to capture an armed British schooner and its supplies for the occupying army and received Washington’s personal commendation. Barry, bottled up in the Delaware, volunteered his services to the American Army and took part in the Trenton and Princeton campaign as aide to General John Cadwalader. Finally, the Effingham was burnt to prevent its falling into British hands, together with most of the Pennsylvania Navy. Barry’s next command was the Raleigh, 32 guns, of Boston, but he was unlucky with this ship, which finally he beached on the Penobscot to prevent its capture. In 1780 he was given the Alliance frigate of 32 guns in which he carried John Laurens to France. Both going and returning he was in action against the enemy, acquitting his command with honor and being wounded in battle. Again, after Yorktown, Barry and the Alliance took Lafayette back to France.

In August 1782 the Alliance left for her final cruise. “Barry ranged the shipping lanes from Bermuda to Cape Sable, was caught in the fringe of a hurricane which had wrecked the British fleet homeward bound from Jamaica, and took four of them, as well as a half-dozen other prizes. He put into Lorient to refit, and was delayed by a mutiny among his officers. Sailing just in advance of the completion of the peace negotiations, Barry touched at Martinique and Havana on his homeward voyage, picked up a bullion shipment at the latter port, and in the Gulf of Florida fought the last engagement of the Revolutionary War, on March 10, 1783, beating off three British frigates and badly damaging one of them, the Sybil.”

In 1787 Barry was made captain of the Asia, the first Philadelphia ship built for the China trade. Barry left port on 10 December and after an uncomfortable and adventurous voyage anchored at Whampoa, the port of Canton, on 7 July 1788. Discharging and loading of cargo took time solely dictated by the Chinese bureaucracy, and the Asia left Whampoa on 7 January 1789, arriving, after a successful voyage, at Philadelphia on 4 June.

Barry now retired from the sea, as he thought, but by 1794 the United States was engaged in difficulties not only with our former ally, France, caused chiefly by developments attendant on the revolution there, but also with the pirates of Algeria. The Congress named him senior Captain and put him in command of the frigate United States. He cruised, chiefly, in the West Indies, and was in charge of all U. S. naval forces there until May 1799. Barry was recalled to Philadelphia and thence escorted to France the American envoys sent to maintain the peace.

Barry’s health prevented his accepting command of the naval forces sent to the Mediterranean to deal with the pirates in 1802. His career ended in Philadelphia on 13 September 1803; he was buried in the church yard of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, South fourth Street. Barry was twice married, first to Mary Burns and secondly, on 7 July 1777, to Sarah Austin. There were no children of either marriage.