At an early age Barry was sent to sea. He arrived at Philadelphia when he was fifteen years old, and made that city his home to the time of his death. He was employed in the West Indian trade and commanded several vessels until December 1774, when he sailed from Philadelphia, as captain of a fine ship "The Black Prince", bound for Bristol, England, returning to Philadelphia 13 October 1775, the day the Continental Congress, then in session there, authorized the purchase of two armed vessels for the beginning of the United States Navy.
Barry immediately volunteered his services, and he was assigned to the first vessel purchases, the "Lexington". His commission was dated 7 December 1775, the first issued by the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress. On 22 December, 1775, Esek Hopkins was appointed Commander-in-chief of the Navy—but was dropped from its roll in March, 1777. Barry was in command of the "Lexington" from his appointment until October 1776, when he was assigned to the "Effingham", 28 guns, then building in Philadelphia. During that time he performed efficient service in lower Delaware Bay; on 31 March, 1776, he put to sea eluding the British man-o-war "Roebuck" on guard in Delaware Bay, and on 7 April fell in with the "Edward", a tender of the British man-o-war "Liverpool" and after a sharp engagement captured her; Barry brought his prize to Philadelphia arriving 11 April, 1776. This was the first war vessel captured by a commissioned Continental naval officer that was brought to that city. He was officially connected to the "Effingham" until her destruction 7 May 1777, by the British forces then in control of Philadelphia. She had been sunk, by order of Washington and the Naval Board, in the Delaware for some time previously and then raised only to be destroyed by the enemy.
In December, 1776, Barry, owing to a blockade of his ship in the Delaware by the English, with a company of volunteers joined the army under Washington and took part in the battles of Trenton and Princeton. He was aide to General Cadwalleder and special aid to General Washington who held him in high esteem.
Returning to his command, he carried out many gallant and daring boat expeditions on the Delaware, successfully annoying and capturing vessels laden with supplies for the British Army. In 1778 he was ordered to command the "Raleigh", 32 guns, and sailed from Boston 25th September 1778. On the 27th he fell in with two British frigates the "Experiment", 50 guns, and the "Unicorn", 22 guns and after a gallant and unequal engagement Barry ran his ship ashore and set her on fire, escaping with most of his crew.
Being without a Continental command Barry accepted, 18 February, 1779, command of the privateer "Delaware" 12 guns and during the cruise captured the British sloop of war "Harlem" 14 guns. In November, 1780, he was ordered to command the "Alliance", 36 guns at Boston in which he sailed to France, 11th February 1781, with Col. John Laurens, special commission to the French Government. On the return trip he captured the brig, "Mars" 22 guns and the brig "Minerva", 10 guns. On 28th May he fell in with the "Atlanta", 16 guns, and the "Trepassey", 14 guns and after a very sharp fight of three hours they struck their colours. In this fight Barry was severely wounded in the shoulder by a grape shot. On 23 December, 1781, he sailed from Boston for France with the Marquise de Lafayette as passenger, and returning arrived at New London 13 May, 1782. He sailed, 4 August, 1782, on the most successful cruise of the war; the prizes he captured sold for £600,000. Returning by way of West Indies and Havana, on 10 March 1783, he fell in with the British frigate "Sybille", 38 guns, and after a sharp fight of 45 minutes she hauled off apparently much injured and joined two other ships with which she had been in company.
This was the last encounter of the Revolutionary war at sea. Peace was declared 11th April 1783, the "Alliance" was sold, and the country was without a navy. The United States navy was permanently organized by Act of Congress, 27 March 1794. Six captains were appointed by President Washington, "by and with the consent of the Senate", and Barry headed the list. His commission, signed by George Washington, president was dated 22 February 1797 and appointed him captain in the navy "to take rank from the 4th day of June, 1794"—"Registered No.1". He was thus made officially the ranking officer of the United States navy. He superintended the building of the frigate "United States", 44 guns, and made several cruises in her with other vessels under his command.
In 1801 the navy was reduced to a peace basis; nine captains were retained, Barry being at the head of the list. His sea service was ended, and being in poor health, he remained at home in Philadelphia until his death. Barry has often been referred to as "Commodore"; there was no such grade in the United States navy until 17 July 1862. Captain was the highest grade before that date, although the non-official title of commodore was generally applied to a captain while in command of two or more vessels.
Barry was married twice, both times to Protestants who subsequently became converts to the Catholic faith. His first wife died in 1771, and on 7 July 1777, he married Sarah Austin who survived him. She died on 13 November 1831. Both his wives are buried with him in the graveyard of St Mary's Church, Philadelphia. There was no issue from either marriage.
His epitaph was written by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A statue and fountain were erected in his memory in 1876 in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, by the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America. A portrait (copy of the original by Gilbert Stuart) was presented to the city of Philadelphia by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, 18 March, 1895, to be placed in Independence Hall. In 1906 Congress passed a bill appropriating $50,000 for the erection of a monument in Washington to the memory of Captain John Barry; and 16 March 1907, a bronze statue of him was erected in Independence Square, Philadelphia, by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.
DRAKE Dictionary of American Biography(Boston 1872) ALLEN,American Biog. Dict. (3rd ed., Boston 1857); ABBOT, The Naval History of the U.S. (New York, 1896); MACLAY, History of the Navy (New York, 1895);SPEARS,The History of Our Navy (New York 1897); LOSSING, History of the US Navy (Hartford 1870); PAULLIN, The Navy in the American Revolution (Cleveland, Ohio, 1906); GRIFFIN, History of Commodore John Barry (Centennial ed., Philadelphia 1903); PREBLE, The Flag of the U.S. (Boston, 1880); COOPER, Naval History(1856).
APA citation. (1907). John Barry. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02310b.htm
MLA citation. "John Barry." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02310b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Catherine Montgomery. "Cura personalis".
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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