John Barry



Occupation 1

Naval officer


Revolutionary War


The World


Maritime Republic (1751-1815)






Apprenticed on a Wexford merchantman as a cabin boy in 1755, he diligently applied himself to the naval profession. Philadelphia became his permanent home in 1760; he became a devoted patriot and successful shipmaster... In November 1775 he relinquished command of the 200-ton Black Prince, which Congress had purchased from Robert Morris, to enter the service of the rebellious colonies. Renamed Alfred, with Barry's help it became the first ship in the Continental navy. Recognizing his potential, Congress made Barry the captain of the brig Lexington on 14 March 1776.
Initially assigned to safeguard colonial commerce along the mid-Atlantic coast, he departed Philadelphia on 28 March 1776. On 6 April 1776 the Lexington engaged the British sloop Edward for about eighty minutes. Barry captured Edward near the Virginia Capes, thus achieving the first naval victory for the Americans. News of this victory greatly enhanced the rebels' morale, and in correspondence dated 11 April, John Hancock's Marine Committee lauded his "zeal and bravery." Barry distinguished himself again on 28-29 June, when he led his crew in a gallant action off Cape May that prevented a gunpowder cache from being captured by the British. By August Barry had seized two more sloops, Lady Susan and Betsey, off the Virginia coast. Congress rewarded him with command of the frigate Effingham, then under construction at Philadelphia.
Many unfortunate circumstances, including a shortage of supplies and the harsh winter of 1776-1777, prevented Effingham from being brought into action against the British. Nonetheless, Barry contributed by offering his services to General George Washington. He raised an artillery battery comprised mostly of volunteer seamen. The battery's main armaments were cannons that they removed from Effingham, which the unit used most notably in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, 26 December 1776 through 3 January 1777.
Barry returned to Philadelphia and assumed duties as the senior naval officer in February... Anxious to harass the British, then in control of the Delaware, Barry raised a squadron of small boats and interdicted British supply lines, seizing many articles for the Continental army. Washington commended him for this campaign in a letter dated 12 March 1778, in which he recognized Barry's "glory" and "bravery." Before it was ready for sea duty, however, the Effingham was destroyed during the British capture of Philadelphia in September 1777, in order to prevent the British from capturing it.
In September 1778 Barry briefly commanded the frigate Raleigh. On 25 September HMS Experiment and HMS Unicorn intercepted Raleigh. The battle lasted several days, and although Barry inflicted some damage on the British vessels, he was forced to run his ship aground on Wooden Ball Island near Penobscot Bay. A court-martial later acquitted him of any wrong-doing in taking this action, and his reputation remained untarnished.
Congress recognized Barry's fortitude on 5 September 1780 by placing its finest vessel, Alliance, under his charge. In February 1781 he carried Colonel John Laurens, special envoy of the Continental Congress, and Thomas Paine to L'Orient, France. Capturing the privateer Alerten en route, Barry's frigate delivered Laurens on 30 March. The return trip was eventful. Alliance captured two privateers, Mars and Minerva, on 2 April, and two merchant vessels on 2 May. On 23 May Barry encountered the combined challenge of HMS Atalanta and Trespassy. Because no wind prevailed, the sloops engaged Alliance without fear of reprisal. During the battle shrapnel struck Barry's left shoulder. Although wounded and outmaneuvered, he refused to yield, and when the wind picked up and the weather gauge favored Barry, he was able to maneuver his ship and, eventually, capture the British ships. In the fall of 1781 Barry refitted Alliance and transported the Marquis de Lafayette to France. He then sailed to Havana, where he performed important service in the Caribbean. In March 1782 he was responsible for convoying much-needed gold from Cuba; although challenged by the British en route, Barry's squadron accomplished its mission. He commanded Alliance until the end of the war and participated in several actions, including the final naval engagement of the Revolution against HMS Sybil on 10 March 1783 off Cape Canaveral.
After the war... [h]e championed the cause of seamen excluded from the postwar benefits afforded to soldiers and petitioned the Congress to this effect... In June 1787 he became the master of Asia, a 292-ton merchant ship, and made one profitable trip to China...
Congress created the U.S. Navy on 27 March 1794, and Barry accepted his appointment as senior captain on 1 July. On 7 August he began to superintend the construction of his frigate, United States, which was put to sea in July 1798, and served as his flagship of the West Indies squadron during the Quasi-War with France. Under his leadership and direction, from December 1798 through 19 April 1799, the fledgling U.S. Navy provided security for American commercial interests and displayed the emerging power of the United States in the Caribbean. Barry was effective in reducing piracy and French naval presence in the area. His main action in the conflict occurred on 3 February 1799, when United States captured the infamous French privateer L'Amour de La Patrie near Martinique.
After transporting American peace envoys to France, Barry returned to Guadalupe and resumed command of the squadron until the end of the conflict in 1801. It was during this time that many young naval officers, including James Barron and Stephen Decatur, developed under his command. "Barry's boys" were among the most brilliant stars of American naval heritage, especially in the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812.
Barry returned to his home in Philadelphia and continued to serve his country as the senior navy officer. Although suffering from a severe asthmatic condition, he routinely gave the navy valuable guidance and leadership until his death in Philadelphia.

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external image head7_john_barry_1972.jpg

Date: 1972
Image Id: 453

Record ID: 88