The Birth of America’s Navy

Commodore John Barry – an Unsung Irish Hero

          There are times to condense themes and other times to proclaim them in their totality. While in the process of exploring Barry’s accomplishments for my upcoming book The Irish in America’s Revolution, I chose the latter for this article 

Over a half-century has passed since my mates and I marched in Philadelphia’s Barry Day Parade. Truth to be told, I knew little of Barry, my intent was to link up with colleens from the Irish dances. Wouldn’t you know it? I ended up with my bride, the lovely Betty Jane McGinty to whom I’ve been wed for over 50-years.

        After recapping Griffin’s 100-year-old book, I felt such a sense of awe at Barry’s accomplishments; I had to share all my notes. Without doubt, the 6’4” Irishman, from Ballysampson on our Lady’s Isle in Tacumshin Parish, County Wexford who settled in Philadelphia; earned the title “Father of the American Navy.”


The Birth of America’s Navy

Source: The Story of Commodore John Barry by Martin I. J. Griffin


  • Dec 7, 1775 –John Barry was commissioned captain of the Lexington
  • Mar 23, 1776 – Congress issued letters-of-Marque authorizing public and private cruisers to capture British vessels
  • April 7, 1776 – Barry seized the sloop Edward, the first ‘armed’ vessel captured by the Colonials
  • Aug 2, 1776 – Next the Lady Susan
  • Aug 1776 – Then the Betsy
  • He aided in the transport of Washington’s Army across the Delaware to the Battle of Trenton. Because there were no ships available, Barry took to foot and led a company of volunteers during the Trenton and Princeton campaign
  • Oct 22, 1777 – Drove the British fleet off, preventing them from aiding the capture of Fort mercer at Red Bank, during which the Augusta and the Merlin were driven ashore
  • Assisted in supplying Washington at Valley Forge
  • Jan 5, 1778 – Initiated “The Battle of the Kegs” by floating kegs loaded with powder into the British fleet anchored in the Delaware.
  • Feb 26, 1778 – Destroyed 400 tons of forage from Mantua Creek
  • Mar 7. 1778 – Captured the Mermaid and the Kitty. Then the Alert. Cheese and a jar of pickled oysters from the Alert intended for General Howe’s table along with a plan of New York were forwarded to General Washington at Valley Forge with Barry’s compliments
  • Mar 12, 1778 – Taken from a letter to NY Gov. Clinton written by Alexander Hamilton, “We have learned that Barry captured a few gunboats and two large ships laden with forage from Rhode Island, and also an armed schooner.”
  • Barry recovered official British papers, including the Order of Lion ďOr for General Knyphausen, which was forwarded to the Hessian general
  • Barry is said to have turned down an offer of 20,000 guineas and the command of a British Frigate
  • While engaging two British Frigates (50-gun Experiment & 22-gun Unicorn), Barry ran the Colonial 32-gun Raleighaground to prevent its capture
  • Congress chose not to determine on a request from Barry for a table and a secretary
  • The British, having learned of an intended General Lincoln-led invasion of the Province of East Florida to be transported by Barry, dispatched General Clinton to Charleston, SC—the intended invasion was cancelled
  • Aug 19, 1779 – Judith, a slave of Captain Barry, was baptized
  • Fall 1779 – Now a temporary Commodore of the Delaware, Barry, in company of three other letter-of-Marque brigs and one schooner, took without resistance the Harlem, a British sloop-of-war. During the voyage, a merchant ship from Liverpool was captured, but alas was retaken by the noted Goodrich
  • The armies of the Continentals and the states militias contended against each other for men. So did the Navy of the Continentals, the letter-of-Marque privateers, and the 13-original states, which at this time still considered themselves to be sovereign nations. Often times the volunteers were recruited at the point of a gun. Barry gave the crew of the Delaware authority to defend themselves from being shanghaied by the Continental Frigate Confederacy laying at Chester, PA. A naval battle was avoided when Barry communicated: “Lieutenant Gregory, I advise you to desist from firing. This is the brig Delaware, belonging to Philadelphia, and my name is John Barry.”  Nothing further was said or done.
  • Nov 6, 1779 – Barry was given command of the Continental’s 74-gun frigate America under construction at Portsmouth, NH. Although, there is no record of his actually taking command
  • Barry, however, for three months, took command of the 14-gun American, a Pennsylvania owned vessel
  • Jun 26, 1781 – John Paul Jones succeeded Barry as superintendent of the America’s construction
  • Sept 1780 – Barry took command of the Alliance—named in honor of our alliance with France. As a further compliment to the French, Frenchman Pierre Landais was initially named captain with Barry subsequently succeeding him. Landais is buried in New York’s St. Patrick’s cemetery, Barry in Philadelphia’s St. Mary’s cemetery
  • Oct 1780 – The betrayal by Benedict Arnold was discovered
  • The Alliance, captained at the time by Landais, was the only American vessel in the expedition, under John Paul Jones. Sent out by King Louis XVI, the expedition resulted in the memorable capture of the Serapis by Jones’s Bonne Homme Richard
  • The America was presented to France to replace the Magnifique wrecked in Boston harbor.
  • Barry helped pay for equipping and launching the America by prizes earned during the Alliance’s first cruise. The Alliance was the largest, and finest vessel of the Continental Navy and more complete than any under the service of England or France
  • Landais and Barry were the only commanders of the Alliance, despite a timber from that vessel in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall inscribed, “Commanded by John Paul Jones during the Revolutionary War.” The timber is located on the same grounds as that of a statue honoring Barry… erected March 16, 1907 by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick
  •  Feb 11, 1781 – Barry’s Alliance transported Col John Laurens to France to secure a gift of six millions. Clothing and military stores from the King to finance America’s needs. Laurens’ father had been captured on a earlier mission, and currently resided in the Tower of London. The French gift moved Washington’s Army to Yorktown by paying one month on specie and furnishing supplies.
  • Mar 4, 1781 – While enroute with Laurens, the Alliance captured the British cruiser Alert, which had in its possession the La Buonia Compagnia, a neutral Venetian ship. Barry released the Venetian ship and her crew
  •  Mar 23, 1781 – Barry’s Alliance escorted the supply-loaded, letter-of-Marque vessel, Marquis de La Fayette. The vessels became separated in a storm, and the French vessel was subsequently captured by the British-man-of-war, Suffolk.
  • Mar 30, 1781 – A mutiny plot on the Alliance was discovered and prevented
  • Apr 2, 1781 – the Alliance captured two armed British cruisers, the Mars and the Minerva
  • May 2, 1781 – The Alliance captured a brig and a small vessel loaded with sugar from Jamica
  • After Barry was wounded, the Alliance captured a ship-of-the-war, the Atalanta, and the Trepassy, a brig – their crews were sent to Halifax as a cartel for exchange of American prisoners
  • While Barry was recovering, John Paul Jones applied to members of Congress to be declared “Head of the Navy.” When it was recommended that Barry also be made an Admiral, Jones departed in a huff.
  • In 1781 – All naval affairs was given to the Finance Dept, supervised by Robert Morris – The frigates Alliance and Deane constituted the whole of the effective Navy. Both vessels were placed under Barry’s command, and he was given free reign to “disturb” the enemy
  • Nov 21, 1781 – Barry was directed to take Marquis Lafayette to France on so urgent a mission that Robert Morris directed a safe and speedy arrival, and all vessels are to be avoided. Regarding the French gentlemen, “… we are not rich enough to be extravagant nor so poor as to act meanly. … remember all the money we have or can get from France will be wanted for other more important purpose, therefore I charge you not to expend one livre more than is absolutely necessary.”
  • Feb 10, 1782, Barry given until Mar 1st to cruise in search of prizes. Disappointment came all the vessels sighted were neutral
  • May 10, 1782 – Chased from the Delaware Bay by the British Frigate Chatham and sloop-of-war Speedwell, Barry, after hove out a signal for the Marquis La Fayette to take the struck one while he gave chased and captured the other, arrived in New London on the 13th, where he refused to be commanded by a French chevalier.
  • Aug 4, 1782 – A few days after an interview with George Washington, Barry left at 4 AM, by 7 AM he had captured a brig loaded with fish and brick.
  • Aug 9, 1782 – Barry took and sent to Boston the schooner Polly with a cargo of molasses, sugar, and lime.
  • Aug 23, 1782 – Sent Captain Tufts of the Polly to inform the Governor of the Bermudas to release all American prisoners or he would remain for three weeks, hindering all ocean going traffic.
  • Aug 25, 1782 – Relieved the privateer Hawk of her captive, the sloop Fortune, then returned to chasing incoming vessels.
  • Sep 8th, 1782 – Captured a Nantucket brig carrying whale oil to New York, which was still in English possession. While off the Banks of Newfoundland, he captured a brig.
  • Sep 24, 1782 – Took two ships, and on the following day another and all of the fleet from Jamaica for which he had been searching. These he ordered to L’Orient, France. Most of the crews would have entered Barry’s service except they had family in Glasgow. Four captive vessels were sent to L’Orient and four to America which brought in at auction over $50,000
  • Nov 30, 1782 – Preliminary articles of peace had been signed
  • Dec 9, 1782 – Britain’s King George III announced that he had given orders to prohibit the further prosecution of the offensive war upon the Continent of North America
  • Mar 6, 1783 – The Alliance and Lauzun left Havana with $72,000 aboard, which was moved to the swifter Alliance
  • Mar 10, 1783 – the British frigate SybilleThe last battle of the war occurred weeks following the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty
  • Apr 11, 1783 – Congress declared the “Cessation of arms by sea as by land.”
  • Apr 19, 1783 – George Washington announced the close of the war
  • By the war’s end, Irishman John Barry was Commodore of all armed vessels in the service of the Colonies, with George Washington the Commander-in-Chief of all forces—military and naval.

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