Navy Legend: John Barry Also Called ‘Father of U.S. Navy’

By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

For the continuing series on Navy Legends, we’ve asked you – the Sailor, veteran and reader – to offer up one of your own favorite legends, with a reason or two as to what makes a naval legend. Is it action or attributes?

Portrait by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), circa 1801. In 1972 this painting was on indefinite loan to the White House. It was then owned by Peter Brady.  Courtesy of the White House, Washington, D.C.  Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

Portrait by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), circa 1801. In 1972 this painting was on indefinite loan to the White House. It was then owned by Peter Brady. Courtesy of the White House, Washington, D.C. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

We kicked off the series with John Paul Jones. But as our esteemed senior historian, Michael Crawford, Ph.D., of the Naval History and Heritage Command pointed out, one of the many pleasant surprises he discovered while authoring the definitive reference series, “Naval Documents of the American Revolution,” was the U.S. Navy and its Continental counterpart had more than one legendary Navy captain.

212 years ago Commodore John Barry, the first commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy, died at the age of 58. This month’s naval legend got his start as a cabin boy and ended up commander of the fledgling U.S. fleet.

While many Navy enthusiasts claim Jones deserves the title of Father of the U.S. Navy, there are just as many who argue Barry’s skill on the sea, training methods that he put into place, plus his deft maneuvering around political pandering earns him the title.

To sum up the difference between the two men, Jones would at first coyly defer such a title, while agreeing how brilliant the people were to bestow it on him. Barry, however, would likely dismiss such nonsense, stating such a grand title was too big for any one man to hold.

Not that Barry wasn’t big enough to command such a title, Barry was a man of few words and less hype while his counterpart Jones was the exact opposite. Estimated to be around 6-foot-4 inches, Barry was an imposing presence.  The diminutive Jones, however, had a penchant for prose and poetry that propagated his seafaring tales and amused his lady friends. Barry wore the plain Continental Navy uniform with its blue coat, breeches and red vest, while Jones pimped up his to take on a more decorative Royal British Navy vibe ­– blue coat, white breeches and vest.

When the two were together, which wasn’t often, it was the talkative Jones who would dominate conversations. It appears, mostly through Jones’ writing, the two sea captains shared a mutual respect for each other, for Richard Dale (one of their most-trusted lieutenants), and a disregard for the French Capt. Pierre Landais.

From Ireland to Philadelphia

Barry was born March 25, 1745, at the port village of Tacumshane, Ireland. His father farmed property owned by a British landlord until the family was evicted. As a young boy, Barry chose to follow his uncle’s career as a seafarer, serving as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. The novice quickly learned navigational skills by combining mathematics with astrology and meteorology, and how to fix repairs while underway.

By age 15, he came to the American colony, landing in the port city of Philadelphia and finding employment among the growing merchant industry. A master seaman by age 21, he earned command of his own ship, the Barbados. As a leader, Barry was considered a fair disciplinarian who cared for the men working for him. He was also known to be deeply religious, starting each morning at sea reading passages from his Bible.

By the time he was 30, Barry was an accomplished sea captain on the trade route between Philadelphia and the West Indies. Drawn to the American colony’s fight for its freedom against Great Britain, Barry sold his merchant trader Black Prince to the cause. Barry was designated a captain in the newly-formed Continental Navy, and oversaw the outfitting the Black Prince into the warship renamed Alfred, soon to become the flagship of Commodore Esek Hopkins.

Barry was given the command of the brig Lexington, on which he was credited with the first capture of the American Revolution, the British sloop Edward off the Capes of Virginia on April 7, 1776.

Barry Finds Legacy on Alliance

Barry’s most successful command was onboard the 32-gun frigate Alliance on 1780. On May 29, 1781, Barry fought with HBMS Atlanta and Trepassy near Newfoundland. During the battle, Alliance’s colors were shot down and Barry suffered multiple shrapnel wounds, including a severe injury to his left arm. He remained in command until loss of blood caused him to lose consciousness.

Taken below decks, Barry was having his wounds dressed when his second-in-command, Lt. Hoysted Hacker, brought him an update: “I have to report the ship in frightful condition, Sir. The rigging is much cut, damage everywhere great, many men killed and wounded, and we labor under great disadvantage for want of wind. Have I permission to strike our colors?”

Barry put that thought immediately to rest.

“No Sir, the thunder! If this ship cannot be fought without me, I will be brought on deck; to your duty, Sir.”

Captain John Barry, passing Boston lighthouse from sea, 1781. Detail from contemporary painting by Captain Matthew Parke, USMC, who served on board the ALFRED and RANGER with John Paul Jones, and on the ALLIANCE with John Barry.

Captain John Barry, passing Boston lighthouse from sea, 1781. Detail from contemporary painting by Captain Matthew Parke, USMC, who served on board the ALFRED and RANGER with John Paul Jones, and on the ALLIANCE with John Barry.

A new flag was posted to indicate the fight would continue. Just as Lt. Hacker stepped on deck, a gust of wind came up, filling Alliances’ sails. Bringing the ship around, the starboard battery blasted its 14 12-pound cannons. Two broadsides later, Atlanta and Trepassy struck their colors. The British lost two ships, 11 sailors, including a captain, and 25 wounded during the 4-hour battle.

It was Barry’s Alliance that would fight the last naval engagement of the war in March 1783. Alliance was escorting the transport Duc de Lauzane, which was carrying 72,000 Spanish silver dollars and a cargo of war supplies for the Continental Congress. But in the Gulf of Mexico, a British squadron caught sight of the American ships. As the transport continued to port, Alliance’s gun crews skirmished with the British 28-gun man-of-war HBMS Sybylle, forcing its surrender. But Barry had to abandon the prize in order to evade the rest of the British squadron.

Barry’s Life After the American Revolution

Following the American Revolution, Barry went back to being a merchant marine. After Congress decided to form its own Navy with the Naval Act of 1794, Barry was appointed as the U.S. Navy’s first commissioned officer. Commodore Barry was tasked with overseeing the construction of the Navy’s first six frigates, including his own ship, the 44-gun United States.

With only a month left in his term, President George Washington invited Barry to his residence at 190 High Street (now Market) on Feb. 22, 1797, to receive a certificate designating Barry as Commission Number One. It was back-dated to June 4, 1794, the date of his original appointment. The ceremony was especially celebratory, as it was the president’s 65th birthday.

The next year, when the Quasi-War began with France, Barry commanded the fledgling U.S. Navy fleet, and from his flagship USS United States, captured several French merchant ships. He also used his ship as a hands-on training facility, mimicking how Barry himself learned to handle craft and sea years before. Many of the officers who trained on Barry’s ship would go on to play pivotal roles during the War of 1812, among them Stephen Decatur and Richard Somers.

Following the end of the Quasi-War, Barry was chosen to command the Mediterranean Squadron, but was too ill to report to duty. At age 58, he died Sept. 13, 1803 from the complications of asthma at his home near Philadelphia.

Besides his reputation as an accomplished sea captain, Barry left behind the signal book he wrote in 1780 that established a more effective communication between ships sailing in squadron formation. It was Barry who suggested creating a separate Department of the Navy, with its own cabinet status, from the Secretary of War, an idea that was adopted in 1798.

Barry was held in high esteem by his sea-faring peers, such as Jones, who upon his death bequeathed to Barry the gold sword Jones received after being knighted a chevalier by King Louis XVI. Barry wore the sword during the battles of the Quasi-War.

When Barry died, he gave Jones’ sword to their favorite lieutenant, Richard Dale. The sword is now displayed near Jones’s tomb under the U.S. Navy Academy. Barry’s Bible is right above, resting on the altar of the Academy’s chapel.

During Barry’s funeral, physician Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, eulogized his friend by writing: “He fought often and once bled in the cause of freedom, but his habits of war did not lessen in him the peaceful virtues which adorn private life.”

The debate will continue for decades to come as to who should be considered the Father of the U.S. Navy. There is merit in the argument that title should be shared among all who contributed so much during the early years: George Washington, who actually purchased and then donated his own ships to start the Continental Navy, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and yes, John Paul Jones.

But it was John Barry, who at age 30, became an early leader during the formative years of the U.S. Navy, mentored the fiery Jones and countless other officers, while leading ships and sailors in the new republic’s first two wars. Devoted and courageous throughout his 17 years of service, it was John Barry who set the bar for future naval officers.