Commodore John Barry

Italic excerpts from Irish in the American Revolution

By James Francis Smith

With the sole exception of Benjamin Franklin, Barry, the Father of the American Navy, accomplished more diverse deeds to secure America’s independence than any other person.

Bordering Barry’s grave, at Philadelphia’s Old Sr. Mary’s Church, a plaque describes his contributions to America’s independence, without which we would still be subject to Britain’s royal family:

“Let the patriot, the soldier, and the Christian who visits these mansions of the dead, view this monument with respect. Beneath it are interred the remains of Commodore John Barry, Father of the American Navy.”

At the age of 10, he took to a life at sea, arriving in Philadelphia in 1766:

By 1770, he had been elected to the Society of Poor, Aged, and Infirm Masters of the Sea, the Sea Captains Club who dined at the City Tavern. Barry’s friend Stephen Moylan joined with him as one of three Catholic members of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick. By 26, Wexford, Ireland born, Barry made captain of the Barbadoes, and sailed to its namesake, the easternmost of the Windward Islands in the lower half of the Lesser Antilles. It was there he earned an early reputation when two days after Christmas in 1766, fire spread by wind broke out in the Warehouse District. Barry organized a bucket brigade and saved the town. On his return sail, he encountered a squall. The Pennsylvania Gazette reported his ship was thrown on her beam ends, meaning it sailed almost sideways with its sails in tatters, and the vessel close to capsizing. With mainsail and top sail lost, and cargo shifting, it was only Barry’s seaworthiness that saved the ship and its crew.

Barry assisted the soon-to-be democracy in preparing for war:

Barry now sailed out of the Dutch port St. Eustatia, with a new product; one not yet banned in the colonies … gunpowder. He captained the last Bristol, England bound-ship to depart Philadelphia. Barry had hoped to arrive and depart from England before knowledge of the American ports’ embargo of British goods became widespread. His return voyage would contain only ballast. He sailed from London to St. Eustatius and from there smuggle home some gunpowder.

Ship building for the fledgilng navy soon became his forte:

Finding Barry the only man capable of getting vessels shipshape in a timely manner, the committee, put him in charge of finishing the Montgomery, a trim fighting craft with 14-guns and eight-swivels.  The command went to Thomas Read. With the Delaware River iced in, Barry assisted in preparing Commodore Esrk Hopkins’s fleet for its departure. Word around the waterfront confirmed that Barry was doing more important work outfitting vessels than from sailing them.

Finally an opportunity to sail:

Upon being notified he was captain, Barry renamed it the Lexington after the first major encounter of the war, and had it ready to sail in two weeks time. While waiting, the Irishman visited Allen Moore’s Tavern and signed up a crew of 70 able-bodied seamen. Extensive training followed. Barry took his shallow ship through the shoals to lose the Roebuck. The Edward, a sloop tender assigned to the frigate Liverpool, which was less well-armed than Barry’s Lexington, assumed the brigantine was easy pickings. For an hour the two battled. Finally, the Lexington crossed-the-T across the Edward’s stern, making the sloop defenseless. After suffering a hole below the cabin, the Edward struck their colors and asked for quarter. For the first time, a British ship-of-war, in combat, surrendered to a ship of the Continental Navy. Barry ordered Pennsylvania’s grounded Brig Nancy, carrying 386-barrels of gunpowder, to row the precious cargo ashore during the night. Barry’s men continued unloading during the darkness. At dawn, with a boatload of British marines boarding her, a delayed fuse, set by Barry, blew up the remaining unloaded 100-barrels, killing dozens of enemy seamen.

Then there’s the time he helped saved Washington’s Army:

Paddy Colvin, the grumpy ferryman, awakened from a sound sleep, looked in amazement as several dozen seamen poured onto his ferry dock. His friend, John Barry, was directing another half-dozen to continue on to McKonkey’s. “What’ve we got going on here?” the Cavan-born Colvin asked as soon as he got Barry’s attention. “’Bout time you rose. We’ve work to do. Washington’s retreating to the river, and we need to get him and what’s left of his army to this side before Cornwallis catches him.” Scratching his chin, the Cavan man surveyed the louts standing around doing nothing. Then he sent numbers of them up and down the shoreline to alert the boat owners as to the chore ahead. “Tell them when we’ve got the colonials across, to moor their boats on this side or Cornwallis’ll use them to come over Himself. Then turning to his friend from County Wexford, he said. “Let’s take a ride; if you’re going to transport an army, you’ll not do it in those fancy sailboats of yours.”

During the battle for Trenton, Barry served as a foot soldier:

With the weather worsening, getting back to the Pennsylvania side was more treacherous than the earlier crossing. In addition to their own starving, freezing, and weary troops, there were over a thousand Hessians to transport. Barry was ordered to move them first. The ice surrounding the boat had to be chopped to make way for passage, with patriot and prisoner alike all frozen to the skin, jumping up and down to break the boats loose. The northeast wind blew them over two miles off course, and many leaped into the frozen water to make their own way to shore.

Barry’s major contribution came from preventing supplies from getting to the British:

            On the Lexington, while protecting supply vessels, Barry sent up to Moylan 191 firearms. French vessels with molasses, coffee, and linen from West Indies were also saved from capture. A nest of loyalists along the lower Delaware near Newcastle were prevented by “Barry’s Brig” from supplying British tenders. The brig Nancy—chased by six British men-of-war—was run ashore by Barry. Her gunpowder and supplies, however, were saved. Furthermore, powder in the cabin was exploded by Barry killing 40 to 50 of the British boarding her. A nest of loyalists along the lower Delaware near Newcastle were prevented by “Barry’s Brig” from supplying British tenders.

When the British occupied Philadelphia:

Food and other supplies were finally arriving, for the British now controlled the river south of Philadelphia. Mary took comfort whenever she heard the loyalists cursing the name of Continental Naval Captain Barry, who seemed to be the instigator causing them all their discomfort. There was little doubt in her mind that the Irishman from Wexford was responsible for the commotion created by the floating bombs. Although not causing undue damage, the nightly explosions by the kegs hitting obstacles ruined the sleep of all Philadelphians, and the nerves of the legions of redcoats who patrolled the city’s narrow streets.

Rowboats rather than sailboats had to serve:

            With four rowboats and a 27-man-crew, he departed Burlington in the pitch black of night, passed Philadelphia without incident, and linked up with a detachment from Washington’s army sent by General Anthony Wayne, to aid him in his endeavors. Using all his nautical skill and his small rowboat navy, Barry boarded and captured the Kitty and the Mermaid from Rhode Island. These vessels had been convoyed by the 10-gun Alert, which was also captured. Barry sent the captive supplies on to Valley Forge. Included among the supplies was cheese, pickled oysters, and wine, initially intended for General Howe’s table. Among the captives were a major, two captains, three lieutenants, 10-soldiers, and 100-seamen and marines. The Order of Lion d’Or, intended for General Knyphausen, was sent to the Hessian with Barry’s complements.

History’s first recorded cattle drive:

            No sooner had Washington given General Wayne orders to scavenge South Jersey for forage and food, than he recruited his old Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick buddy, Captain John Barry. Knowing the British would soon be short of hay, fodder, straw, cereals, and fresh meat, following Barry’s successful destruction of the forage, the two turned for aid from the Gloucester Militia under the command of Colonel Joseph Ellis. In short order, Ellis’s men rounded up 150-head of cattle in the vicinity of Salem.

From George Washington, Barry heard;

“I have received your favor of the 9th inst. And congratulate you on success that has crowned your gallantry and address in the late attacks on the enemy’s ships. Although circumstances have prevented you from reaping the full benefit of your conquests, yet there is ample consolation in the degree of glory which you have acquired. May a suitable recompense always attend your bravery.”

As with any conflict things didn’t always go well;

That night, with the Brits again approaching, Barry ran the Raleigh ashore at Seal Island in Penobscot Bay and, with their sails cut loose, continued the fight against the two-decker, 50-gun Experiment and its companion, the 22-gun Unicorn. Unable to continue, Barry ordered his men ashore and set fire to the Raleigh, which Jesse Jaycockt, an Englishman, extinguished before the ship could be consumed by the flames. The Marine Committee ordered the Naval Board of Boston to open a Court of Inquiry, which found Barry’s behavior had done honor to our flag.

Even the mention of Barry’s name brought respect:

At this juncture, the 6’4” Barry called for the name of the Confederacy’s captain. “Lieutenant Gregory, I advise you to desist firing. This is the Brig Delaware belonging to Philadelphia, and my name is John Barry.” Having once served under Barry, Gregory knew he was a man who wasn’t to be trifled with. The gun was hauled in and the Confederacy’s men returned to their regular duties. The Delaware sailed on. Barry couldn’t wait to tell this tale to his drinking buddies.

Whether to build ships, judge a court-martial, or handle an urgent matter, Barry was called on:

Congress finally agreed to ask France for a loan of another 25-million livres. Henry Laurens’s son, John, was selected as the envoy. His father, Henry Lauren, after being captured on a mission to Holland, had been sentenced to spending the remainder of his life in an English prison. Barry and the Alliance were selected to be John’s transportation.

At times a stern hand was required:

Barry uncovered a mutiny plot, disclosed by a loyal Indian crew member, making it unwise to delay any further the administration of discipline. Subsequently, one of the leaders was lost overboard, resulting in a number of the plotters changing their minds. The officers and crew, deemed trustworthy, were armed and instructed to guard the quarterdeck, the steerage, and the main deck. The remainder of the crew was confined to the forecastle and boom. Three suspected mutineers were put in irons.

Even Barry wasn’t immune:

To counter the Englishman’s moves, Barry positioned some of his nine-pounders causing fog-like smoke to hide the vessels. During the exchange, Barry was wounded when a two-inch grapeshot hit his left shoulder. About that time, the Alliance’s colors were shot away. Edwards, believing the American struck her colors, had his crew man their shrouds in expectation of a surrender. When asked if the colors should be struck, the wounded Barry answered, “If the ship cannot be fought without me, I shall be brought to deck.” While recovering from his wound, Barry learned that the Resolute arrived from France. It carried the loan arranged by Laurens, providing sufficient funds to support Washington’s army on its march to Yorktown. What brought Barry greater joy was the arrival of the Trepassey with 130 exchanged Americans, freed from their prisons in Halifax.

Finally given full command:

         On his arrival in the City of Brotherly Love, Barry paid his respects to Robert Morris. Morris revealed that funds to finish outfitting the Alliance and the Deane, the United States Navy’s only two ships, had been made available, and they were Barry’s tocommand;in addition, he was given a free hand to disturb the enemy.

Barry was looked to first, for every important mission:

On November 21st,Barry was ordered to take the Marquis de Lafayette to France. The safe and speedy arrival of Marquis Lafayette was so important Barry was restrained from cruising on passage. Regarding stores for the French gentlemen, “Let it be done with discretion; remember we are not rich enough to be extravagant, nor so poor as to act Meanly.” Lafayette shared with Barry a letter, written on November 15th, by General Washington:

… must depend absolutely upon the naval force which is employed in these Seas and the time of its appearance next year. No land force can act decisively unless it is accompanied by a maritime superiority….

…that without a decisive naval force, we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious. A constant naval superiority would speedily terminate the war….

The U.S. Naval battles began and ended with Barry:

“The United States ship Alliance, I am John Barry, half-Irishman, half-yankee! Who are you?” The Alliance then drubbed the Sybille.

This last battle of the war between the Alliance and the Sybilleoccurred weeks following the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty. Barry had captured the first armed enemy vessel of the war by any ship in the Continental Navy and the last by any ship in the United States Navy. 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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