This Day in History: John Barry, Father of the Navy?
On this day in 1794, George Washington appoints six captains for the new United States Navy. One of these men, John Barry, would later be named Commodore.
Is Barry rightfully called the Father of the Navy or should the title go to John Paul Jones? You will hear arguments made for both men.
Barry came from poor beginnings in Ireland, where he learned a love of ships from his uncle. He came to America when he was 15 years old and soon found himself commanding merchant vessels. He was thus overseas when shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. When he returned home from a trip to London in the fall of 1775, the Continental Congress was debating the creation of a navy. Fortunately, Barry arrived just as the matter was being discussed. He brought word that “Eight men of war, from forty to fifty guns each” and several British regiments were being sent to America.
The report revived a lagging debate on naval issues. On October 13, Congress resolved to fit out two armed vessels. Soon, Congress had obtained these vessels, “Lexington” and “Reprisal.” Barry was commissioned Captain of Lexington on December 7.
In other words, Barry was a Captain in the Navy, right from the beginning.
Within months of being commissioned, he also became the first Navy captain to capture an armed British ship. The Royal Navy sloop, “Edward” was captured off the Capes of Virginia, but only after an intense battle that lasted for about an hour. Barry wrote the Marine Committee that he had “shattered [Edward] in a terrible manner,” and he brought the captured vessel back to Philadelphia.
It was a big morale boost for the Patriots. John Adams soon reported: “We begin to make some little Figure here in the Naval Way.”
As it would turn out, Barry also fought during the last sea battle of the Revolution. On March 10, 1783, Barry was escorting a transport ship when he ran across the British ship, HMS Sybil. After an intense battle, Sybil was badly crippled and withdrew. Barry had successfully protected the important cargo (money) entrusted to his care.
Barry fought other naval battles, of course, but he also helped with other efforts on land. For instance, he served with the Continental Army at Princeton. He also helped to make Pennsylvania’s affirmative vote on the Constitution possible after the war. Some Pennsylvania legislators were hiding, preventing a quorum on a critical vote. Barry and others found two legislators and took them to the State House, thus completing the quorum.
During Washington’s presidency, Barry was appointed as a captain along with five other men. He was the senior captain in the group and was later named Commodore. In this position, Barry supervised the building of USS United States, and he also commanded her. He was involved in naval engagements during the Quasi-War with France.
Barry retired from active service in 1801, but still retained his title as head of the Navy when he passed away on September 12, 1803. One historian has described him thus: “Captain Barry was early in the struggle, foremost during its continuance and latest in service.”
Another hero who should not be forgotten.
Executive Journal of the Senate (June 3, 1794) (Excerpt printed HERE)
James C. Bradford, Command Under Sail: Makers of the American Naval Tradition, 1775-1850 (1985)
Journals of the Continental Congress (Oct 13, 1775)
Launching the New U.S. Navy (National Archives website)
Letter from John Adams to Joseph Palmer (Apr. 12, 1776)
Letter to Alexander Hamilton from Silas Talbot (January 15, 1799)
Martin Griffin, Commodore John Barry (1908) (reprinted HERE)
Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010)
Recognizing Commodore John Barry as the First Flag Officer of the United States Navy (H.J. Res. 38; Dec. 14, 2005)
Tim McGrath, Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea (2014)
Tim McGrath, John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail (2010)