John Barry (1745-1803) was a U.S. naval officer during the American Revolution, distinguished by his gallant achievements. In the 1790s he was the senior officer in the American Navy.
John Barry, born in Ireland and always a staunch Roman Catholic, went to sea at an early age. In 1776 a Philadephia merchant selected him to be the master of a vessel trading with the West Indies. In that year Barry, already a veteran mariner, received a captain's commission in the Continental Navy. A myth persists that Barry was the first captain appointed to the first vessel purchased by Congress, but his initial ship was a hastily outfitted Philadelphia brigantine, the Lexington. He created quite an impression in his opening cruise by capturing a well-armed tender, giving safe convoy to several merchantmen, and eluding a British squadron. Barry's stature grew quickly, and he has been called the most popular officer in the Revolutionary Navy.
Barry's later commands were the Effingham, the Raleigh (which he had to run aground to avoid capture), and the Alliance. In the last years of the war he performed valuable service transporting supplies and dispatches between France and America. Unaware of the state of peace negotiations in Paris, he fought the last naval action of the Revolution more than a month after the conflict had officially ended. Barry remained in the service for two additional years, until the government sold the Alliance. The last captain to resign, he literally saw the Continental Navy come to an end.
Barry's retirement at his plantation home, Strawberry Hill, outside Philadelphia was not to be permanent. Congress, stung by the Barbary pirates' attacks on American shipping in the Mediterranean, resolved to create a new navy in 1794, and President Washington extended Barry a commission as senior captain in the service. After helping to supervise the naval construction program, he was made commander of the United States, the first of the new vessels to put to sea. The tall, white-haired Barry was accorded the courtesy title of commodore, the second American naval officer ever to hold the title, and the first in 20 years. Between 1798 and 1801 Barry spent much of his time directing American naval operations in the West Indies, the period of the so-called Quasi-War with France. In semiretirement in 1802 the 57-year-old Barry was asked by President John Adams to assume command of the Mediterranean squadron, but ailing health compelled him to decline. He died the following year.
There is only one biography of Barry worthy of attention—an excellent study by a distinguished authority on the naval history of the Revolution, William B. Clark, Gallant John Barry, 1745-1803: The Story of a Naval Hero of Two Wars (1938). For early American naval history see Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution (2 vols., 1913).