Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 842

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 842


This is the grave of John Barry.

Born in 1745 in Ballysampson, County Wexford, Ireland, Barry was a Catholic. He was treated as a Catholic in 18th century Ireland too. His family was kicked off their land by the landlord and moved to the coast, where Barry’s uncle worked on a fishing boat. The young boy followed his uncle onto the water with few other economic options. At some point, I think in the early 1760s, Barry moved to the American colonies and based himself out of Philadelphia. By this time, he was a well-respected seaman. In 1766, only 21 years old, he received his first command of a schooner operating in the West Indies trade. Pennsylvania’s long history of religious toleration also appealed to Barry, so he could practice as a Catholic without the discrimination he would face in much of the British Empire. He soon proved himself in that mercantile center as the kind of ship captain one could rely on and so he rose rapidly and got bigger commissions. Specifically, the early financier Robert Morris hired him and they became friends. With Morris rapidly becoming a leader in the anti-British struggle that led to the American Revolution, Barry, no friend of the English himself, was happy to join up. But before this, while sailing one of Morris’ ships back from Britain, he made 237 miles in one day, which was considered a record speed at the time.

When the Revolution started, the Continental Congress gave Barry the pretty thankless task of creating a Navy out of whatever the colonies had on hand and also with basically no money since the colonies were so anti-tax. He was named a captain in the Continental Navy in 1776 and given command of the Lexington. The British attempted to bribe him to turn over his new ship, the Effingham, with a significant amount of money and a commission in the British Navy. He refused to even think about it. He also fought on land at times, including at the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton. In 1778, he attacked British ships with…..rowboats, barges, and longboats, surprised them and destroyed three of them. Amazing. Later that same year, he lost a battle with the British and fled with his ship under fire all the way to Maine, where he was able to save most of the crew, though the ship ran aground and then a traitor got in the way of him destroying the rest of it so it would not fall into British hands. In fact, the British were able to salvage it.

In 1780, Barry took time to write a book to provide American naval officers a series of signs for communication. In 1781, Barry was commanding the Alliance and engaged in his biggest battle of the war off the coast of Newfoundland. A brutal four hour battle ensued. His ship was nearly lost and he was wounded, but the U.S. managed to win. After an attempt by a British ship to take out an American ship commanded by Barry in 1783 that had a lot of silver currency on it leaving Havana, which Barry won easily, his Revolutionary War career was over.

After the war, Barry went back to the merchant trade, including the lucrative trade with Asia, where he brought back luxurious goods such as ivory to the Philadelphia elite. George Washington created a permanent, if small Navy, while president. In 1794, Congress confirmed Barry as Captain of the American Navy without actually informing of their intention ahead of time. Not sure how long it took him to respond to this, but it was in 1797, right at the end of Washington’s second term that Barry received his commission from the president. He had suggested an independent Department of the Navy before this and so was very influential in it being created. He commanded the Navy during the undeclared war with France between 1798-1800 that was fought on the high seas. His last assignment was heading the U.S. Naval Station on Guadeloupe in 1801.

Barry died of asthma in 1803. He was 58 years old.

John Barry is buried in Saint Mary’s Catholic Churchyard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Thanks! If you would like this series to visit other American naval officers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Wohlsen Behrens, who founded NOAA, is in Arlington and James Stockdale, the Navy Vice-Admiral and someone questionable 1992 candidate for VP, is in Annapolis, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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