In December of 1774 Barry was made master of the 200-ton Black Prince by Robert Morris, a close friend of Barry and a partner in a Philadelphia merchant shipping firm. It was aboard Black Prince on a return voyage from England that Barry set an 18th century record by travelling 237 miles by dead reckoning in a 24 hour period.
On the same day in October 1775 that the Black Prince docked in Philadelphia the Second Continental Congress decided to establish the American Navy. The war between the colonies and England was well underway by then.
Immediately on his return, Barry offered his services to the Continental Congress. By all accounts Barry held a deep rooted grudge against the British for the Cromwellian massacres in Wexford in 1645 and for the inhumanity of British rule in Ireland he witnessed and endured during his childhood.
Barry's offer was eagerly accepted and the first task given him was to outfit the first two ship of the new Continental Navy. After he completed that task, in a most proficient manner, he was commissioned by John Adams the first officer of the Continental Navy and given command of the Lexington, the Continental Navy’s first warship, and tasked with disrupting British shipping along the eastern seaboard.
Within one month on patrol Barry and his crew had captured the H.M.S. Edward the first British warship captured in a sea battle by the new American navy. The captured warship was taken up the Delaware to Philadelphia for all to see and then put back in service as an American warship. The Lexington continued its patrol and in June of 1776, together with other American vessels, engaged a number of British warships chasing an American privateer vessel the Nancy captured earlier from the British. Under cover of fog the Nancy’s cargo and crew were taken aboard the American vessels as the British warships were closing in. Two of the British warships ships pulled alongside the Nancy and as their crews were about to board the gunpowder barrels that Barry ordered fused exploded destroying the Nancy and the British warships
Unable to sail due to ice on the Delaware during the winter months, Barry was on hand to assist Washington ferry his troops across the Delaware river on Christmas Eve and again on New Year's Eve to attack British garrisons at Trenton and Princeton. He took part in both battles, which resulted in victories for the Americans that provided a major boost for the revolution and recruitments for both the army and navy.
Shortly afterwards he took commanded the 32-gun Effingham, Gen Washington ordered that it and other ships on the Delaware be scuttled to avoid capture and use by the British after the fall of Philadelphia in September 1777. Barry objected so strenuously that he had to apologizing to a member of the Navy Committee who had accused him of ‘failing in his duty’ ‘a liar’. After the ships were destroyed Barry used the Effingham's boats to conduct raids on British transport and supply ships along the Delaware capturing two supply ships the Kitty and the Mermaid and a warship the Alert for which he received a commendation from the Continental Congress for his courage and audacity. Such was the damage inflicted on British shipping that British General Howe offered Barry £15,000 to discontinue these raids and bring the Effingham and her crew into British custody. Not being in his nature to put personal gain before patriotism he refused stating that he 'spurned the idea of being a traitor'.
In September of 1778, Barry took command of the Raleigh a 32-gun frigate berthed in Boston. On his way to Virginia where the frigate was to undergo an overhaul he was spotted and given chase by the Unicorn and Experiment two British warships with a combined total of seventy two guns. After a 48-hour battle and having sustained major damage to the Raleigh including a shattered mainmast and the loss of ten sailors he still managed to cripple the Unicorn. As the Experiment closed for the kill Barry ordered the Raleigh scuttled rather that surrendering it to the British. He saved two-thirds of his crew and guided them to safety in rowboats to Boston.
In 1780 Barry took command of the 12-gun brig Delaware and was sent to Haiti as part of a small American fleet. For the next year he plied these waters adding more British merchant ships to his very impressive resume.
In 1781, Barry was given command of the Alliance a 36-gun frigate with order to take John Laurens and Thomas Paine, Americas highest ranking diplomatic delegation to France. The delegation was charged with soliciting increased assistance from the French. Due to difficulties securing crew members captured British sailors were used to fill out the roster. On the return trip a planned mutiny by the British sailors was discovered and quelled. Later on the return journey the Alliance engaged two British ships the Atlanta and the Trespassey in a ferocious battle that lasted for four hours. Shortly after the engagement began the Alliance being the heaviest of the ships was immobilized for the lack of wind. The two smaller British ships were able to move close to the Alliance and cause it severe damage. Barry was wounded during the fight but refused to surrender. Eventually the wind came back up and the Alliance was able to turn and fire its cannons at the other ships damaging both and causing them to disengage and sail away.
In December of 1781 the Alliance with Barry in command set sail for France with France’s General Lafayette and the French diplomat Count De Nouailes on board with orders to deliver them safely to the French port of l'Orient. He patrolled the waters of the English Channel for targets of opportunity before returning home in March of 1782. On his next mission in August of that year he captured numerous vessels including nine merchantmen en route from Jamaica to Britain with cargoes of rum and sugar. When sold off they made £620,000, a welcome boost to the rebel treasury.
Barry fought the last engagement of the war in the Alliance on March 10th, 1783 against the British frigate, Sybil. After considerable damage to both ships the Sybil disengaged and sailed off.
After the final peace treaty was signed with Britain in April 1783, Barry returned to his trade once more and after a 30 month voyage that opened up trade to the Far East, he returned triumphantly once again to Philadelphia.
In 1794, when President Washington ordered the construction of six frigate to protect US merchantmen from Algerian pirates he appointed John Barry from Ballysampson Co Wexford the senior commander of the US navy by declaring: ‘I, George Washington, President of the United States, reposing special trust and confidence in your patriotism, valor ,fidelity and abilities have nominated , and by and with advice and the consent of the Senate, appoint you Captain of the Navy of the United States’.
As Senior Captain of the Federal Navy, a position he held for the rest of his life, he played a vital role in establishing the earliest traditions of the Navy in serving faithfully to protect the rights of the sovereign United States
For the last two years of his life he devoted much time to causes close to his Irish heart like the Hibernian Fire Company, The Friendly Sons of St Patrick and the Charitable Captains of Ships Club, founded to help the widows of sailors lost at sea.
On September 12th 1803, John Barry died, from asthma related complication, at his home in Strawberry Hill in Philadelphia On September 14t, 1803, he was buried with full military honors at Philadelphia’s Old St Mary’s Cemetery.
Contributed by; Tomás Ó Coısdealha
He was there from laying the first keel to firing the last shot in the American Revolution’
Tomás Ố hÓgáın
Cemetery AND grave location
Name: Old St Mary’s Cemetery. PHONE NO. (215) 923-7930
ADDRESS: 252 South 4th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Back to Biographies Posted 12/ 29/09