Irishmen in the United States Navy

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

« Chapter VI. | Contents | Chapter VIII. »

Chapter VII.

Irishmen in the United States Navy—Commodore Barry—Captain MacGee—Captain O'Brien—Midshipman MacDonough—Purser Mease—Barry's Lieutenants, Murray, Dale, Decatur, and Stewart

THE organization of the infant Navy of the United States was one of the heaviest anxieties of the first Congress. Among a people bred to the use of arms, and annually involved in Indian warfare, it was a much easier matter to raise an army, than, out of the limited shipping of the young seaports, to find vessels and officers to whom the national flag could be intrusted on the other element.

Fortune had thrown in the way of Washington, a man most useful for this department of the public service. This was John Barry, a native of the parish of Tacumshane, Wexford county, Ireland. Barry was born in the year 1745, the son of "a snug farmer," and had but to step out of his own door, to stand beside the sea. He conceived so strong a love for a sailor's life, that, at fourteen or fifteen years of age, he crossed the Atlantic, and began to sail to and from Philadelphia. He rose from one trust to another, teaching himself as he rose, till, at twenty-five years of age, he was captain of "the Black Prince," one of the finest London and Philadelphia packets, afterwards a vessel of war. Mr. Rese Meredith was the owner of this ship, and Washington's host when in Philadelphia. It was in his house the illustrious Virginian met, and marked, the future commodore.

In the latter part of 1775, Congress had purchased a few merchant ships, and hastily fitted them up as vessels of war. Captain Barry was given the command of the principal, the Lexington; and in another, "the Alfred," Paul Jones entered as first lieutenant. These vessels both lay in the Delaware, and, when the flag of the Union was agreed on, they were the first to hoist it, afloat.

From the Lexington, in 1776, Barry was transferred to the frigate Effingham, and while the Delaware was frozen that winter, served on land, acting as aide-de-camp to General Cadwallader, at the battle of Trenton. In 1777, the British fleet destroyed the two or three ships of Congress, in the Delaware, but Barry conceived and executed many most successful manoeuvres, such as capturing store-ships, and intercepting supplies, in the small craft and in armed boats. Washington publicly thanked him and his men for these effective services. In 1778 and 9, he commanded the "Relief," and received the rank of Commodore, being the first on whom it was conferred. In 1781, he brought the American Agent to France, in his new ship, "The Alliance," and on his way home captured the British ship "Atalanta," and British brig "Trespasa," both in the same battle. Captain Barry was badly wounded in the action, but continued to give orders till the enemy struck. In 1781, he brought Lafayette and Count Noailles to France; and in 1782, engaged three British frigates in the West Indian waters, who retired badly damaged. This was the last year of the war.

From 1783 till his death, Barry was constantly engaged in superintending the progress of the navy. He induced the government to adopt the model for ships of war, which has been found so well suited to its uses. He was particularly fond of aiding the younger officers in the service, and we shall see what his "boys" came to be. He was an exceedingly affable and hospitable man, and, what is unfortunately not usual in his profession, practically religious. He died in September, 1803, and his chief legacy was to the Catholic Orphan Asylum. He has been called, by naval writers, "The Father of the American Navy." He is buried in St. Philadelphia.

The personal character of Commodore Barry was made of noble stuff. When Lord Howe tempted him with a vast bribe, and the offer of a British ship of the line, he replied, "he had devoted himself to the cause of his country, and not the value or command of the whole British fleet could seduce him from it." He never was ashamed of his native land, and, after the peace of Paris, paid a visit to the place of his birth, which fact is still remembered with gratitude in his native parish. When hailed by the British frigates, in the West Indies, and asked the usual questions as to the ship and captain, he answered, "The United States ship Alliance, saucy Jack Barry, half Irishman, half Yankee,—who are you?"

In 1778, Captain James McGee, while commanding "in the service of the Commonwealth," was shipwrecked in Massachusetts Bay, and seventy-two of his men lost. The survivors were very kindly treated "by the inhabitants of Plymouth, who, also, "decently buried such bodies as were recovered."[1] In 1791, Captain James McGee was admitted a member of the Irish Charitable Society of Boston, and in 1810, was its president. Captain Bernard McGee was admitted the same time. I regret that I have been able to find no further data about either of these officers.

Two of the earliest prizes carried into the United States were captured by five brothers, of Machias, named O'Brien, natives of Cork, two of whom, Jeremiah and John, afterwards held naval commissions.

On board the other ships of the new navy there were several Irish officers, of minor grades, some of whom afterwards rose to independent commands.

In the quarrel between America and France, or rather, the Directory, one of the severest actions fought was that of The Constellation, commanded by Commodore Truxton, with the French frigate L'Insurgente. In this action, Midshipmen Porter and James McDonough distinguished themselves. The former was of Irish descent, the latter of Irish birth. Mr. McDonough had his foot shot off, and was obliged to retire from the navy, but his younger brother, Thomas, who entered the same year, more than justified the expectations of the friends of that family. Their father, Major McDonough, had settled at Newcastle, Delaware, shortly before the birth of Thomas, who used to say of himself, that "his keel was laid in Ireland, but he was launched in America." Major McDonough died in 1796.

Mr. Mathew Mease, Purser in the Bon Homme Richard, with Paul Jones, was a very brave man. In the conflict with the Serapis frigate, he begged to be allowed to direct the quarter deck guns, which he did, very gallantly, till, says Paul Jones, "being dangerously wounded in the head, I was obliged to fill his place." He was most respectably connected in Philadelphia, where he died, in 1787.

Under Commodore Barry some of the most brilliant ornaments of the American Navy were trained, such as Murray, Dale, Decatur, and Stewart, all of whom became conquerors and commodores. Dale, especially, was a favorite of "the Father of the Navy," and his noble conduct through life fully justified the confidence placed in his character, by Barry, from the first day of his entering under his charge.

In the war of 1812, Barry's pupils all rose to eminent distinction, as we shall find when we arrive at that period.

« Chapter VI. | Contents | Chapter VIII. »


[1] Holmes' American Annals, vol. ii., p. 293.

[2] See Appendix No. III.