John Barry "Father" of the US Navy?

Claimed by many to be the father of the US Navy, John Barry started life the son of a tenant farmer in Tacumshane Co. Wexford on the 25th March 1745. Life was hard for John and his family especially so when they were evicted from their small holding by an absentee landlord. John went to live in Rosslare where he won his sea legs in the employ of his uncle, Nicholas Barry, who was the owner of a fishing skiff.

At fifteen, and probably having enough of an Ireland still under the crushing oppression of the penal laws, he packed his kitbag and set sail for Philadelphia. Yet another Irishman, or in John’s case an Irish boy, off to America in search of freedom and opportunity.

John was a natural-born sailor and by age 21 he was captain of his own ship voyaging several times a year to the Barbados. John’s life was on the up and within ten years he found himself married and living in a relatively affluent area with a servant to boot.

However, not all was shipshape in the colonies and the gathering storms of unrest and revolution were blowing across the political landscape. With what he must have seen as a despairing case of déjà vu he found himself in a situation where having fled British oppression, he was again being oppressed by the British. It was probably easy therefore for John to hoist his flag with the revolutionaries and to take the opportunity to have a go at the auld enemy.

It was March 1776 and John was given his first command at sea; USS Lexington, an 86 foot Brig. It wasn’t long before the Lexington was in the thick of things. Slipping down the Delaware River and through the British blockade at sea, she encountered the British Tender, the Edward. What must he have thought as he brought his guns to bear on his British foe? Payback time; perhaps? 

The Lexington Raising the Flag. By F. Muller (Naval History and Heritage Command KN-457) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Lexington Raising the Flag. By F. Muller (Naval History and Heritage Command KN-457) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After a fierce fight, the Edward had had enough and gave up in the time honoured fashion by striking her colours from the mast.  She was taken as a prize into Philadelphia gaining the distinction of being the first British naval vessel captured during the revolutionary war. John was a man of action and over the following months, several other small ships were captured.

He was an imposing figure and at an estimated 6 foot 4 inches, he was literally a giant among men being a foot taller than the average male of the time. It seems also that he was unassuming and modest not at all interested in hype or self-promotion. He was kind to his men and thoughtful of their welfare. Religious also, he is said to have begun each day on board with a reading from the bible. A clear case of praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.

It was late 1776 and while John was waiting for his next command, the Effington, to be completed, he was offered a bribe of 15,000 guineas plus a commission in the Royal Navy if he handed her over to the British. This is more than a chunk of change as it is not far off €3 million in today’s money! Needless to say and rubbishing the notion that every man has their price, John spurned this generous offer refusing to turn traitor.

Perhaps his most famous command was the Alliance, a 32-gun frigate in 1780. In May 1781, the Alliance encountered not one but two British sloops of war off Newfoundland.  They were the Atalanta and the Trepassey. While the Alliance, a frigate, would have been expected to easily deal with two sloops; near calm conditions moved the advantage to the smaller ships that could be rowed using their sweeps.

In the ensuing exchanges, John was severely wounded in the shoulder and was taken below to the sick bay. The sloops continued to pour unrelenting shot into the sitting duck that was the Alliance and things looked grim. The first lieutenant, who had taken over command, advised John to strike his colours but he would have none of it. He ordered him to return to his deck and continue the fight whereby a fortunate change in the wind shifted the advantage back to the powerful frigate. The inevitable could not be long postponed and soon the two sloops had had enough and struck their colours.

The Alliance, with John in command, had the distinction of fighting the last naval engagement of the revolutionary war in March 1783. She was providing escort to a transport carrying a large amount of Spanish silver dollars when they were spotted by a British squadron. In the ensuing skirmish, HMS Sybylle was forced to strike her colours but John had to forgo his prize and flee the area to evade the rest of the British ships.

Commodore John Barry. Portrait by Wilfred I. Duphiney (1884-1960). Rhode Island State House portrait collection. Original Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel [Public Domain]

Commodore John Barry. Portrait by Wilfred I. Duphiney (1884-1960). Rhode Island State House portrait collection. Original Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel [Public Domain]

Following the war, John went back to the merchant marine for a decade. In 1794, he was appointed as the US Navy’s first commissioned officer with the number 001 and with the rank of commodore, he was the most senior officer in the navy. He worked tirelessly to turn the US Navy into a force to be reckoned with and many say that it is him and not others who truly deserve the title of being the “Father” of the US Navy. On September 13th, 1803 he died at his home in Philadelphia. And so ended the incredible life of Commodore John Barry born in Tacumshane, Co. Wexford, Ireland on this watch 25th March 1745.