April 7, 1776: Lexington Takes Edward

Thursday, April 7, AD 2016

On March 14, 1776, that sea going Catholic son of Ireland John Barry, received his commission as a Captain in the Continental Navy from the Continental Congress.  It was signed by John Hancock, President of the Congress.  Barry wasted no time making his mark.

Barry was placed in command of the USS Lexington, 14 guns, on December 7, 1775.  Captain Barry took the Lexington on its maiden voyage on March 26, 1776.  On April 7, 1776, Barry had his initial victory of the war, taking H.M.S. sloop Edward after a short but fierce engagement.  This was the first naval victory of the new Continental Navy and the first British warship captured by the Americans. Barry had begun his victorious military career and started to earn the proud title of Father of the American Navy.

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Father of the United States Navy

Sunday, October 13, AD 2013



(First published in 2009, the 238th birthday of the United States Navy is a good day to post it again.)



1745 was a busy year in the history of the misnamed British Isles, with Bonnie Prince Charlie doing his best to end the reign of the Hanover Dynasty in England, so I guess it is excusable that no note was taken of the birth date of John Barry in Tacumshane, County Wexford, Ireland.  During his childhood John received, along with all the other excellent reasons given to Irish Catholics over the centuries to love Britannia, good reason to look askance at the British when his father was evicted from his poor little farm by their British landlord, and the family went to live in the village of Rosslare.

Yet the nameless landlord, completely unintentionally of course, did John a good turn, because it was in Rosslare that young John found his life’s calling:  the Sea.  Nicholas Barry, his uncle, lived there and was captain of a fishing skiff.  John decided to follow in the footsteps of his uncle and seek his fortunes on water.

This was a completely rational choice on the part of John.  The British imposed penal laws, summarized by the great Edmund Burke as follows:   “For I must do it justice;  it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts.   It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”   Rendered helots in their own land,  almost all ambitious Irish Catholic lads and lasses had to seek their fortunes elsewhere.  Additionally, for a poor ambitious young man in Europe in the Eighteenth Century, the Sea offered a path to wealth and social advancement.  If he was willing to work hard, learn to read, and learn enough math to chart the course of a ship, a poor sailor, with luck, could rise to be captain of a ship one day.  Compensation for the crew of a merchant vessel was often based on a share of the profits, with the merchants who bankrolled the vessel usually taking between a half to two-thirds with the remainder being divided among the crew:  the greater the rank, the larger the share.  An able captain could eventually become a wealthy merchant.  His daughters might marry into the aristocracy.  His sons might become wealthy bankers and eventually be ennobled if they played their political cards right.  Although this path was precluded to Irish Catholics by the anti-Catholic Test Act, a poor sailor in the Royal Navy might end his days as an admiral, and there were always a few admirals in the Royal Navy in the Eighteenth Century who had begun their careers in just such a fashion.

However, if the Sea offered opportunities it also had severe risks.  Life aboard ship was cramped and unpleasant, with bad food and putrid water tossed in as a garnish.  Discipline was often brutal and risk to life and limb was an every day occurence.  According to Dr. Samuel Johnson,  “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.”   Ports were filled with crippled sailors who eked out a miserable existence with any light work they could get, selling wood carvings and begging.  As Lord Nelson noted, the average British sailor, due to a hard life, was dead by forty-five.

Defying all challenges, John flourished at sea.  Flying through the ranks of cabin boy, seaman, able seaman and a mate’s rating, he proved himself tough and determined.  It also didn’t hurt that he was as strong as a sea-going ox, and grew into a giant  of a man, standing six foot and four inches in a time when the average height of an adult male was five feet and five inches.  During his career he would suppress three mutinies aboard his ships single handedly, and his great physical strength was a key asset in the very rough world afloat.  In 1766 he achieved his dream of becoming a captain and skippered the Barbados with a home port of Philadelphia.  It was on the Barbados that he began his habit, that he kept up in peace and war, in having the day start with a reading from the Bible to the crew.  Captain Barry fell in love with Phillie, a town where he could freely practice his Catholic faith, and a bustling, prosperous port.

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6 Responses to Father of the United States Navy

  • In Wexford there is a monument to John Barry and a quayside pub named after him which according to one reviewer serves the best pint of Guinness in town. A great Irishman indeed, who did sterling service for his adopted country.

    BTW, Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, which is about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get in England, and like most landlubbers knew nothing about sea service. The prevalent myths about life on board an 18th-century man-of-war (bad food, harsh discipline etc.) were comprehensively blown out of the water by the publication in 1986 of Dr NAM Rodger’s “The Wooden World – An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy”.

    Most Brits know next to nothing about their maritime history, and would be hard pressed (no pun intended) to name a sailor apart from Drake and Nelson. I hope the average American has more knowledge of, and respect for, his proud heritage.

  • Commodore Barry’s contributions to the founding of this country are greatly under appreciated. The three+ hour battle between Alliance (which was built not a mile from where I sit) and Atalanta and Trepassy was every bit as dramatic and desperate as that between Bonhomme Richard and Serapis, if not more so. The winds were light that day and following the start of the battle, Alliance was becalmed, a decided disadvantage where the British ships could also be propelled by sweeps. Alliance had given the British ships a drubbing, but was taking the worst of the punishment when Barry was hit in the shoulder by grapeshot (an iron ball about the size of a golf ball). Staying on the quarterdeck as long as he could, loss of blood eventually forced Barry to be carried to his cabin. As Alliance continued to take a beating from her opponents, Barry’s first lieutenant, Hoystead Hacker, appeared in the cabin and asked Barry’s permission to surrender. “No!”, roared Barry, “If the ship can’t be fought without me I will be carried up on deck!” Chastened, Hacker returned to his post as Barry struggled back into his shirt and coat. Just then, the slightest of breezes sprang up, allowing Alliance to answer her helm and bring her guns to bear. First Atalanta, then Trepassy received broadsides from Alliance and they surrendered in turn as Barry made his way up the hatchway to the quarterdeck. He returned to his cabin, where he received, then returned the sword of Captain Edwards of the Atalanta (Captain Smyth of the Trepassy had bee killed during the battle).

    The battle was hard fought and Barry’s superior seamanship contributed to his victory. At one point, he backed Alliance down between the two British ships, a feat more famously and, I believe not coincidentally, repeated by Captain Charles Stewart (grandfather of Charles Stewart Parnell), who served as a midshipman in Barry’s wardroom aboard the USS United States, when Stewart and USS Constitution encountered HMS Cyane and HMS Levant during the War of 1812.

  • The engagement between the USS Alliance (a 36-gun frigate with a main armament of long 18-prs an a secondary one of 9-prs) and the sloops Atalanta and Trepassy (the larger being only a third of the size of her adversary and both ships mounting only 14 x 6-prs apiece) was hardly an equal contest. The surprising thing is that the English ships decided to give battle in the first place. Given the odds, they could have honourably struck.

  • The British had stalked the Alliance through the previous night and were the hunters in this contest. Alliance was battered from weather and the treacherous battle tactics of a pair of cowardly British captains during a previous encounter, was sorely in need of refit, and had half its normal compliment (and many of them inexperienced), all on top of the maneuverability difficulties posed by light airs. Alliance’s guns, when they could be brought to bear at all, could only be served on one side or the other.

    While Captains Edwards and Smyth could not have known this, the fighting capacity of their own ships was not inconsiderable and, with a two-to-one advantage, they clearly thought Alliance was more than worth the risk. Barry himself would have been within his rights to decline battle, with all that he faced, not least of which was more than 100 British prisoners in the hold of the Alliance. John Kessler, one of Barry’s midshipmen, recalled that “We could not bring one-half our guns nay oft times only guns out astern to bear on them.” In other words, both British captains, taking advantage of the lack of wind and recognizing the superiority of Alliance’s armament, positioned themselves where that superiority was negated.

    Alliance “shattered in the most shocking manner”, suffered tremendous damage, along with 8 killed and 24 wounded, further reducing an already depleted crew. Ultimately, Barry negotiated an exchange of prisoners, sending those aboard the Alliance and captured from Atalanta and Trepassy (save the officers) into Halifax aboard Trepassy. He then nursed his battered frigate back to Boston, where he saw to her refit and served as her captain until she was sold out of the service, the last ship of the Continental Navy, following the Treaty of Paris.

  • John Nolan

    The British are more knowledgeable about the naval history than you give them credit for. I can remember as a schoolboy being required to memorize Newbolt’s poem,

    Effingham, Grenville, Raleigh, Drake,
    Here’s to the bold and free!
    Benbow, Collingwood, Byron, Blake,
    Hail to the Kings of the Sea!
    Admirals all, for England’s sake,
    Honour be yours and fame!
    And honour, as long as waves shall break,
    To Nelson’s peerless name!

    We were expected to know the story of each of them

  • Herman Wouk, in his 1952 novel “The Caine Mutiny” said in the preface that there had never been a successful mutiny aboard a US warship. He must have forgotten about the Alliance, when on 11 August 1780 Captain Landais was removed from command in circumstances strikingly similar to those of Captain Queeg.

The American Revolution at Sea

Sunday, October 14, AD 2012

I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.

Captain John Paul Jones, November 16, 1778

Yesterday was the 237th birthday of the United States Navy.  On October 13, 1775 the Continental Congress passed the following resolutions:

Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruize eastward, for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct.

That a Committee of three be appointed to prepare an estimate of the expence, and lay the same before the Congress, and to contract with proper persons to fit out the vessel.

Resolved, that another vessel be fitted out for the same purposes, and that the said committee report their opinion of a proper vessel, and also an estimate of the expence.”

Congress thus threw down the gauntlet against the mightiest sea power in the world.  Vastly outnumbered by the Royal Navy, the United States Navy gave a good account of itself, raiding British commerce, bringing desperately needed supplies to Washington’s Continental Army, shipping diplomats like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to Europe to enlist the aid of France and other sympathetic countries, and demonstrating to an astonished world, again and again, that it was possible to beat a British warship in battle, as John Paul Jones did commanding the USS Bonhomme Richard against HMS Serapis on September 23, 1779:

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