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John Barry

the first commanding officer in the United States Navy

John Barry

John Barry was born at Ballysampson on Our Lady's Island, Tacumshin Parish, County Wexford, Ireland, on March 25, 1745, the son of a poor tenant farmer. Early in his life, Barry's family was evicted from their farm and forced to relocate to Rosslare, where his uncle captained a fishing skiff, and John soon became determined to make his living as a seaman.

In 1760, Barry joined other Irish Catholics escaping persecution and immigrated to Philadelphia, where he became a merchant seaman. In 1766 he was given command of the schooner Barbadoes, and he spent the next several years making regular trips to the West Indies. As a ship's captain, Barry gained a reputation for reliability and success, and throughout his merchant career he never lost a ship due to storms or pirates. On September 10-11, 1775, he captured an 18th-century record for sailing the open seas by covering 237 miles in one 24-hour period.

"Father of the U.S. Navy"

Barry was in the West Indies when the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, but as soon as he returned to Philadelphia he was given the task of outfitting as many ships for the Continental Navy as he could get his hands on. In addition to securing ships, Barry was also in charge of getting the ships armed and making sure they had adequate sails and rigging. The Continental Congress rewarded him with a Captain's commission on March 14, 1776, as well as with command of the newly-completed brig Lexington. On April 7, 1776, the Lexington met the British tender Edward off the Cape of Virginia, and, after a one-hour battle, became the first American ship to capture a British war vessel on the high seas.

After his victory against the Edward, Barry was sent back to Philadelphia to oversee construction of the 32-gun Effingham and two other ships. The Effingham was barely off the launching skid when the British threatened to take Philadelphia in early 1777, and Barry was forced to scuttle it and the other two ships in order to keep them out of British hands. He spent the next year as a soldier in the Continental Army, during which time he participated in the Battle of Trenton and led a defensive line during the Battle of Princeton. His service during these actions so impressed General George Washington that he was personally chosen by the General to convey wounded prisoners through British lines and carry a dispatch under a flag of truce to British General Lord Cornwallis.

Although he lacked a true naval fleet, Barry was charged with engaging a British fleet in the Lower Delaware River. On March 8, 1778, his tiny squadron of 7 rowboats, barges and longboats managed to destroy three British ships and capture two sloops and a schooner. In late September of that same year, while in command of the 32-gun frigate Raleigh, he was engaged by the British frigate Unicorn. The two ships engaged in a running battle for two days before Barry was forced to scuttle the Raleigh in Penobscot Bay (Maine); Barry was able to save two-thirds of his crew (88 men) from the sinking ship and guide them to safety in rowboats all the way to Boston.

The last ship Barry commanded was the 36-gun frigate Alliance. On May 28, 1781, the Alliance took on the British sloops Atlanta and Trespassy off Newfoundland. The Alliance was badly damaged during the early part of the battle, and she was left unable to manuever due to a lack of wind, but Barry refused to give up the fight. He continued his refusal to surrender even after taking a direct hit in the left shoulder from canister shot. He stayed on the deck of the Alliance for twenty minutes before collapsing from blood loss and being taken below deck for medical care. Just as the battle seemed lost, Barry reappeared on the deck to rally his men. Then, suddenly, a gust of wind caught the Alliance's sails and she swung about, allowing her to open up her starboard guns against the British. By the time the four-hour battle was over the Alliance had forced both British ships to surrender and one of the British Captains had been killed. On March 10, 1783, the Alliance was returning from Havana escorting the Spanish transport Duc le Lauzon, which was carrying 72,000 Spanish silver dollars for the Continental Congress, when she was engaged by the Sybil off Cape Canaveral; the Sybil was forced to break off the fight after 45 minutes.

Barry returned to maritime trade after the war ended. Between 1787 and 1789, while captain of the Asia, he helped open commerce between the new United States and China. On June 5, 1794, he was informed by Secretary of War Henry Knox that he had been made Captain of the Federal Navy, and in that capacity he outfitted and supervised construction of the first frigates built under the Naval Act of March 27, 1794. On February 22, 1797, President George Washington bestowed upon him Commission Number One in the United States Navy, which was backdated June 4, 1794, making him the official "Father of the U.S. Navy." He took command of his flagship, the United States, on May 10, 1797. As commander of all American ships during the undeclared naval war with France (1798-1800), he personally captured several French merchantmen. He also served as head squadron commander of the U.S. Naval Station in the West Indies at Guadeloupe, 1798-1801.

John Barry died at his "Strawberry Hill" home just north of Philadelphia on September 12, 1803, and is buried in the Old St. Mary's Churchyard.

Other Information

John Barry married Mary Clary (also spelled Cleary) on October 31, 1767; she died on February 9, 1774. He was married again on July 7, 1777, to Sarah Keen Austin. The couple had no children of their own, but they raised his late sister's sons, Michael and Patrick Hayes.

In addition to his accomplishments as a naval officer, Barry was also the author of a Signal Book (1780) that established a set of signals for effective communication between ships operating in a squadron formation.

In 1992, Congress officially designated every September 13th as "Commodore John Barry Day."

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Individual Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on August 07, 2017.