Barry, John (1745–1803), United States Navy captain, was born at Ballysampson, Tacumshane parish, Co. Wexford, son of John Barry, clerk and small farmer, and Catherine Barry (née Kelly). After his family were evicted, they moved to Rosslare and the young Barry went to sea as a cabin boy. By 1760 he had settled in Philadelphia where he worked as a merchant sailor, rising to become ship’s master by 1766.
At the outbreak of the revolutionary war he relinquished command of his ship, the Black Prince, which was renamed as the Alfred and became the first ship in the Continental navy. Barry helped prepare this ship for naval service and when he offered his own services to congress, he was commissioned as a captain in the Continental navy on 14 March 1776. He took command of the Lexington and on 6 April 1776 captured HMS Edward after a running fight lasting an hour. This was the first occasion on which a regularly commissioned American ship made a capture. After capturing two other British sloops, he was given command of the Effingham, a modern frigate then being built in Philadelphia. Due to the British blockade the ship never actually went to sea and was burned by the British in 1777. He spent much of the next two years serving in the army and commanded an artillery battery that he formed using the crew and guns from the Effingham. He fought at the battles of Trenton (1776) and Princeton (1777). Later in the same year he led four small boats into Delaware Bay and cut out and captured an armed schooner and several transports filled with supplies. In March 1778 he received a note of thanks from George Washington for this exploit.
On 25 September 1778 he set out from Boston in the Raleigh but was immediately sighted by HMS Experiment and HMS Unicorn. After a chase that lasted several days, he engaged the British ships in an unequal fight before running his ship aground on Wooden Ball Island near Penobscot Bay, saving the lives of most of his crew. The resulting court martial found no fault in his conduct despite the fact that the Raleigh was later refloated by a British boarding party and used by the Royal Navy.
As there was no prospect of a new command he made commercial voyages to the West Indies (1779–80). In early 1781 he was given command of the Alliance, which was then the most powerful ship in the Continental navy. This marked the beginning of a more successful phase of his career, and in February 1781 he sailed for France, carrying Colonel John Laurens and Thomas Paine. During the return voyage he captured two privateers and two merchant vessels. After an obstinate fight on 23 May 1781 he captured the sloops HMS Atlanta and HMS Trepassy. He was badly wounded by grapeshot in the left shoulder during this action and received a formal vote of thanks from congress in June 1781. In March 1782 he escorted a much-needed convoy of gold from Cuba, and on a cruise in August he captured nine transport ships sailing out of Jamaica. He fought the last naval action of the war when (10 March 1783) he attacked HMS Sybil off Cape Canaveral. After the end of the war, he championed the cause of ex-sailors, securing them pension rights from congress. He was also politically active, lobbying congressmen in an effort to promote a federal system of government.
As master of the merchant ship Asia he made a profitable trip to China between December 1787 and June 1789. On 22 February 1797 Barry was issued Commission Number 1 by President Washington, backdated to 4 June 1794, when the United States Navy (USN) was founded. He bore the courtesy title ‘commodore’ for the remainder of his career and all new officers in the US navy up to the present day take a number after Barry.
Having overseen the construction of a new frigate, the United States, he commanded this ship in the West Indies during the quasi-French–American war (1797–1801). He enjoyed a successful campaign against privateers and French naval vessels in the West Indies. On 3 February 1799 he took part in the last naval action of the war when he captured the L'amour de la patrie off Martinique. He later carried treaty negotiators to France in December 1799 and then commanded the Guadeloupe station until the end of the war.
Throughout his life he suffered from asthma and his health went into a further decline in 1803. He died 13 September 1803 at Strawberry Hill, Philadelphia, and was buried in St Mary's churchyard. He is often referred to as the ‘father of the American navy’ as his career was inextricably linked with the early development of the USN. He trained many officers who were later to have distinguished careers in the Barbary wars and the war of 1812. These included James Barron, Stephen Decatur, and Charles Stewart, who were known as ‘Barry's boys’. Many of his ideas on naval organisation and training were retained in the new service and he wrote an influential book that set out the signals used for communication between ships at sea.
He married first (1767) Mary Clary or Cleary of Philadelphia (d. 1774). In 1777 he married Sarah Austin (d. c.1803). There were no children from either marriage, but he and Sarah raised his nephews.
There are statues of Barry in Independence Square, Philadelphia, in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, and in Crescent Quay, Wexford, presented to the town in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1981 President Ronald Reagan designated 13 September as ‘Commodore John Barry Day’.
There are collections of Barry papers in the Barnes collection of the Naval History Society of New York and in the Maritime Museum Library, Philadelphia. To date, four different USN ships have borne the name USS Barry.