Jump to content
The Education Forum

U.S. Naval History

William Kelly

Recommended Posts

John Barry – Father of U.S. Navy and First Military Academy?

By William Kelly

Historians have always recognized John Barry and John Barry. One a teacher at the Philadelphia Academy where Charles Stewart, Stephen Deactur, Richard Somers and Richard Russ went to school before enlisting in the United States Navy, the other the Captain of the U.S.S. United States, to whom the young men reported for duty before becoming legendary American heroes.

One a teacher and author of the first book to be copyrighted in the United States, the other a sea captain and Revolutionary War hero. Each is said to have contributed to the education of the four young men who would make U.S. naval history.

Both men had the same name, both lived in the same small Philadelphia neighborhood, both were born in Ireland and were members of the Hibernanian Society, and both played a unique role in the education of the first four Midshipmen to enter the United States Navy.

Although previously considered to be two distinct men with the same name, there is a small, but growing body of historical evidence that John Barry the school master and Captain John Barry were one and the same person.

Besides having a bridge across the Delaware River named after him, Commodore John Barry is generally recognized, though sometimes arguably so, as the Father of the U.S. Navy. Without going that far, Congress recently declared a proclamation in his honor, and his birthday is officially recognized as "John Barry Day," with schools required to teach lessons about him, though few apparently do.


John Barry Kelly, who can trace his family tree to both John Barry and Richard Somers, writes, "Few Americans are well-acquainted with the gallantry and heroic exploits of Philadelphia's Irish-born naval commander, Commodore John Barry. Obscured by his contemporary, naval commander John Paul Jones, Barry remains to this day an unsung hero of the young American Republic. As most naval historians note, Barry can be classed on a par with Jones for nautical skill and daring, but he exceeds him in the length of service (17 years) to his adopted country and his fidelity to the nurturing of a permanent American Navy. Indeed, Barry deserves the proud epithet, 'Father of the American Navy,' a title bestowed on him not by current generations of admirers, but by his contemporaries, who were in the best position to judge."

[Read more of John Barry Kelly's portrait of Commodore Barry: http://www.ushistory.org/people/commodorebarry.htm

John Barry is recognized as a hero of the Revolution and once the Navy was officially reconstituted some years after the Revolution, Barry was made the first commissioned flag officer of the new United States Navy.

John Barry the school teacher is less recognized for something some consider equally significant – the education of the first four young men who enlisted after Barry – Charles Stewart, Stephen Decatur, Richard Russ and Richard Somers. Each distinguished himself as a naval officer and established the style and traditions that are still maintained by the Navy today.

Historians thus far have recorded that after these four young men left the academy, where they were taught by school master John Barry, they served on the U.S.S. United States under Captain John Barry, who was responsible for formulating their conduct as officers.

But there is evidence that Captain John Barry knew his young naval proteges before they joined the Navy. It is possible that Captain John Barry knew them, taught them at the academy and recruited them into the Navy, and then served as their first commanding officer on the United States.

If so, then this academy could be considered an early prototype of the type of military academy that would later train midshipmen and officers at Annapolis, West Point and the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs. West Point was established to train cadets in the early 1800s, while Annapolis began training midshipmen in 1845.

That John Barry would be their teacher at the Philadelphia Academy before becoming their commander at sea is a distinct possibility, despite the objections of historians who believe that John Barry the teacher and Commodore John Barry are two different people.

This objection is distinctly expressed by Philadelphia Seaport Museum curator Megan Fraser, who wrote, "I don't know of any papers in the John Barry series of the Barry-Hayes Papers that pertain to him teaching at the Philadelphia Academy. Actually, I find no sources to suggest that John Barry, the naval captain, and John Barry, master of the Episcopal Academy, are the same person."

And as Megan Fraser points out, "….since the captain was a Catholic, with no documented formal education (although from his writing, one can clearly glean that he did have some sort of schooling), it seems unlikely to me that he would have served as a schoolteacher."

Fraser also noted that it is highly unlikely that standard biographies of Barry would omit the fact he was the author of the Philadelphia Spelling Book if indeed, he was the Episcopal Academy teacher. "I also find that the "Philadelphia Spelling Book" has the distinction of being the first book copyrighted in the United States," she writes and considers, "a fact that surely would have made Captain Barry's standard biographies if he were the author."

While there is a lot of documentation on the career and exploits of Commodore John Barry, there is very little known about John Barry the school master, other than his tenure teaching at the Episcopal Free Academy from 1789-1796, precisely the same years that make a distinct gap in the documented career of Commodore Barry.

The standard biographies that would mention The Philadelphia Spelling Book, if Commodore Barry were the author, also fail to mention what Barry did between the years he left the merchant sea faring business and when he began overseeing the outfitting of the USS United States, leaving open the possibility they are one and the same man.

In addition, there really aren't that many standard biographies of John Barry, as only one stands out – William Clarke's Gallant John Barry – (1938 ).

Clark, William Bell. Gallant John Barry, 1745-1803: The Story of a Naval Hero of Two Wars. New York: Macmillan Company, 1938.

[ http://www.scuttlebuttsmallchow.com/barry.html ]

Today John Barry Kelly is compiling a chronology of the career of Commodore Barry for the Hibernanian Society which should be useful to students and researchers. Ignoring the rest of his career, and concentrating on the years between the end of the Revolution and the beginning of the Navy (1789-1797), there is a chronological blending of time, characters, records and facts that indicate the school teacher and the Commodore are one and the same.

"After the War for Independence and the dissolution of the Continental Navy," John Barry Kelly notes, "Barry reentered the maritime trade. Between the years 1787-89, Barry helped to open commerce with China and the Orient while captaining the merchant ship, Asia."

"In the 1790s, under Washington's guidance, the Navy was revived as a permanent entity. Barbary Pirate depredations on American merchantmen had strained relations with America's old ally France and brought about this revival. On June 5, 1794, Secretary of War Henry Knox wrote Barry to inform him that on the day earlier, Barry had been selected senior Captain of the Federal Navy by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate."

According to Mike McCormick, the National Historian of the Hibernians, Washington's instructions to Barry, two years before the actual establishment of the new Navy, was to recruit such young officers to serve with him. "In recognition of his vast experience and dedication, Washington demonstrated Barry's immense value to the new nation when, on June 17, 1794, he sent for the popular naval hero to form and train a class of midshipmen, who would then be given command as Ensigns, and form the nucleus of a new American navy."

While Barry was the first U.S. Naval officer to receive his commission, others would follow, though it would take some time for the new Navy to have any ships to sail. Many of the new ships were built in Philadelphia, the nation's temporary Capitol, where Joshua Humphreys was famous for designing and making ships. Barry's ship would be the U.S.S. United States, and the first four officers to be commissioned were Lt. Charles Stewart and Midshipman Richard Somers, Richard Russ and Stephen Decatur.

It is no coincidence that before they enlisted in the new Navy, all four were young students at the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia, not far from where the U.S.S. United States was built in Navy Ship Yard in South Philadelphia. Philadelphia was then a major city, but historically a young town of 50,000 people, with most of the commercial and civic activity centered a round the Delaware river waterfront.

Captain Barry, who was then "overseeing" the construction of the United States, had to know Stewart, Decatur, Somers and Russ before they enlisted.

Of the more than 350 applications, only 57 were selected for all commissions, so the competition for each position was stiff. That Barry would select such fine young men to be his officers made them special. But how well did Barry know them?

Besides the Episcopal Academy and the Navy Yard where the Philadelphia was being built, Philadelphia was also the nation's Capitol, and from where President Washington maintained his seat of power.

If Mike McCormick's report is true, that on June 17, 1794 Washington ordered John Barry "to form and train a class of Midshipmen, who would then be given command as Ensigns to form the nucleus of the new American Navy," then he would have been following the orders of the Commander in Chief of forming and training a class of Midshipmen, especially when four of those young officers were Stewart, Decatur, Somers and Russ.

And what did Commodore Barry do during the years 1789, when he ceased being a merchant sea captain, and 1797, when they launched the U.S.S. United States?

Teaching young men at the Philadelphia Academy would nicely fill in that black hole in Commodore Barry's biography. There is some documentary evidence that Commodore Barry, during the years between the end of the Revolution and the beginning of the Navy, served as that teacher at the school attended by Stewart, Decatur, Rush and Somers.

One teacher there was certainly named John Barry, author of the Philadelphia Spelling Book, the first book to receive a U.S. copyright, who was, like Commodore Barry, an Irish immigrant and Hibernian. Proctor Barry began teaching in 1789, when Barry's merchant career ended, and stopped teaching at the Philadelphia Academy in1796, just when the United States entered service under Captain John Barry.

In addition, there are known ties and relationships between the Commodore Barry and the Academy, which increases the possibility that Barry taught there when he wasn't sailing merchant vessels and before he assumed his Navy commission.

According to John Barry Kelly, after his first wife died, "Barry was consoled by his second marriage, this time to the socially popular and attractive Sarah Keen Austin, nicknamed 'Sally' by her friends. Sally Austin and John Barry were married on July 7, 1777, in Old Christ Church by the Reverend William White, rector and founder of the American Episcopal Church."

The Reverend William White was among the founders of the Classical Academy of Philadelphia 1785-1790 which, according to Charles Latham, Jr., became the Episcopal Academy (Charles Latham, Jr. The Episcopal Academy 1785-1984, Wm. Cooke, Pub., Devon, Pa.), so Commodore Barry at least knew Rev. White and had the opportunity of being recruited to be an instructor at the fledgling academy.

In addition, there is an association by marriage between Barry and Richard Somers, one of the principal students at the Academy.

Richard Somers' biographer Barbara E. Koedel (Glory, at Last! – A Narrative of the Naval Career of Master Commandant Richard Somers: 1778-1804, Atlantic County Historical Society, 1993), writes, "Richard's formal schooling probably began in 1785 when his father's ledger showed an account with 'Mr. Yerkess for tuition for Richard.' Yerkess had a single school at this time. Such a school is described as 'making their scholars good writers, good arithmeticians, good readers, and intelligent grammarians; and then…they were qualified by their own separate exertions, to improve themselves at home. Later entries mention tuition to Mr. Simmerman and Mr. Ely, both of whom are identified as 'School Master.' I have been unable to identify these men with a specific school."

"A ledger contains an entry dated October 1791, stating, 'Left my son Richard Somers at Woodbury….to go to Mr. Hunter school.' Savage and Richard, Junior were enrolled in Andrew Hunter's academy at Woodbury, New Jersey, for further education. Although there are entries indicating that Savage took courses in Bookkeeping and Navigation and Surveying there is no mention of specific studies for young Richard. However, there is a small notebook identified as 'Richard Somers His Book,' dated 1792, with notes on navigation, so he was familiar with it. Commencement was on September 20, 1792, so they were in Hunter's school at least a year."

"Several biographies of Decatur" notes Koedel, "state that he, with Richard Somers, Charles Stewart and Richard Rush, attended the Episcopal Academy of Dr. Abercrombie, 'where the discipline is strict, and the educational standards low, and the code of conduct derived from that of the court of LOUIS XVI…They lived much out of doors, boating, swimming, fishing. Somers was the strongest of the four, but Decatur was the best skater, very quick at repartee and a clever mimic. All were high spirited as eagles, and they were involved in not a few fisticuff 'duels' settled in the old Quaker burying-ground.' In a letter to Mrs. Decatur in 1846, Richard Rush remarks about the Academy: '….The Elite of the town went to that school…,' All of this is possible but there is no mention of the Academy in the accounts of Richard's father." Nor in the accounts of Richard Somers' father.

That may be because Colonel Richard Somers died on October 22, 1794. Richard's sister Sarah Somers had married William Jones Keen, a Philadelphia attorney, and after the death of his father, Richard lived with them. In addition, the Academy was known as a "free school," the tuition being paid by solicitations from the pulpit and donations. William Keen is said to be related to Sarah Keen Austin, Barry's second wife, establishing a family relationship between Commodore Barry and one of the four students who would later come under his command.

Claude Berube and John Rodgaard (In A Call to the Sea – Captain Charles Stewart of the USS Constitution – Potomac Books, Washington D.C., 2005, p4), report, "Young Charlie attended Dr. Abercrombie's Academy in Philadelphia. Known later as the Episcopal Academy, it was attended by the elite sons of the city. Little other than the name of the school is known, except that it was one of several Episcopal academies located in the city before the turn of the eighteenth century. One such Episcopal academy was founded in 1785 by Reverend William White to educate the sons of Philadelphia's Episcopalian community. Courses included Greek, Latin, mathematics, and business – all practical courses for young boys who would become the city's merchants, traders, and ship owners, if not sea captains. At the academy, Charley met three other youths whose futures figured prominently in his life and in the U.S. Navy and diplomatic service."

"The first and most famous friend was Stephen Decatur, Jr., the son of an American Revolution ship captain, Stephen Decatur, Sr. The elder Decatur was a sailing master on board a ship owned by the Philadelphia merchant firm of Stewart and Nesbitt."

"A second friend, Richard Somers, less than two months Stewart's junior, was born in Great Egg Harbor, New Jersey, bur during the American Revolution his family lived in Philadelphia. His father served as a militia colonel and judge... Somers father died in 1794 and so, like his friend Charles, young Richard lost his father at a very early age. Also like Charles, Richard Somers entered into the shipping trade when he came of age. However, Somers' voyages were restricted to coastal routes between New York and Philadelphia."

"In scenes that would replay themselves in their naval careers, the young Stewart, Decatur, and Somers often crossed the street from the academy, located on Forth Street, to settle their arguments with fisticuffs…But if one feature of Philadelphia life influenced Stewart, Decatur and Somers more than any other, it was the call to the sea."

As John Barry Kelly wrote, "After the War for Independence and the dissolution of the Continental Navy, Barry reentered the maritime trade. Between the years 1787-89, Barry helped to open commerce with China and the Orient while captaining the merchant ship, Asia," setting the dates of his merchant maritime career. Did John Barry the mariner then become a school teacher?

Charles Latham, in his history of the Episcopal Academy writes, "…Bishop White describes a series of meetings…beginning on 24 October 1788. The original proposal was for a boys school. A school for girls was added to the plan….Both schools apparently opened on 19 January 1789. The boys' school was housed in the basement of the new Academy building, a wall having been built to make a separate room. The teacher was John Barry, who served until 1796, at a salary of $L100 a year. In 1790 he brought out his Philadelphia Spelling Book, which seems to have gone through several editions; the Academy owns a copy of a later edition printed in 1802. He was a member of the Hibernian Society, and in 1792 was also involved in running a Sunday school for boys."

"In 1791, as the Classical Academy crumbled, the mangers of the Dancing Assembly, who rented the upper floors of the building, asked to have the use of the basement. In March the boys' free school was moved to a building in the back of 62 Union Street (now DeLancy), in quarters rented from Andrew Porter at $L20 a year."

In a footnote, Latham mentions that "The 1794 city directory lists Barry at the 'back of 62 Union St.'" The early address of the Classical Academy however, is listed at 83 South Third Street, on the corner of Third and Pearl Streets, and thus one block from the Fourth Street Quaker Cemetery where Stewart, Decatur and Somers were known to have engaged in fisticuffs.

John Barry Kean writes, "Sarah (Keen Austin Barry), an Episcopalian, eventually converted to Barry's Roman Catholic faith. The Barrys were regular parishioners at several Philadelphia Catholic churches: Old St. Joseph's, Old St. Mary's and eventually, St. Augustine's. The Barrys had no children; however, they happily raised two boys from Barry's deceased sister Eleanor's household."

"Sarah's nephews from Ireland, Michael and Patrick Hayes, were brought to Philadelphia by Captain John Rosseter on his ship, the Rising Sun. Rosseter was a neighbor of the Barry family in Ireland, and the captain also wound up living on the same street as John Barry in Philadelphia. His close association with the Barrys continued even in death, as the Rosseter plot lies next to the Barry plot in Old St. Mary's churchyard. …Patrick Hayes, his second wife Sally's nephew, accompanied Barry on his eventful journeys to the Orient where porcelain and ivory treasures were brought back and sold to Philadelphians hungering for luxurious items."

But as J. P. Kelly notes, those merchant voyages ended in 1789.

According to the Episcopal Academy ledgers, teacher John Barry was paid L100 ($266.66) a year from January 1789 until September, 1796, the lowest paid of six teachers. If the teacher Barry is one and the same as the Navy Captain, this could indicate that he may have had additional income from another source, possibly from serving as a merchant sea captain, or from the Navy for outfitting the United States.

It would not be inconceivable that Commodore John Barry, who was born poor and went to sea with no formal education, could be accepted as a teacher, especially if he was endorsed by Bishop White and no less than President George Washington himself had given him the task to "form and train" a "class" of Ensigns.

Since there were five other better paid teachers at the academy, Barry's specialty, ostensibly besides spelling, would have been seamanship, a beneficial curriculum for young boys intent on being seamen, as were Stewart, Decatur, Rush and Somers.

That professor John Barry would write, publish and obtain the first copyright for the Philadelphia Spelling Book seems to support the idea that this John Barry is a different person than the naval commander, however Commodore John Barry also wrote and published a book, on naval flag signals, which might be comparable to the spelling book.

On March 27, 1794 Congress passed an act to create a naval force and build six new frigates, and on June 4, 1794 made John Barry the first commissioned officer. In addition, Washington ordered Barry "to form and train a class of midshipman who would then be commissioned as Ensigns, and form the nucleus of a new American navy."

Funding for the fleet however, wasn't approved by Congress until 1797 and the Navy Department not officially created until April 30, 1798, the very day Richard Somers and Stephen Decatur received their commissions as midshipmen.

Of the 350 applicants for commissions, only 59 were approved for all grades, from midshipman to captain, so the time between the commissions and the launching of the U.S.S. United States would have been well spent teaching the young men who anticipated being first officers, as reflected in Washington's orders to Barry.

In addition, there is evidence that Captain Barry knew both Decatur and Somers before their enlistment. Decatur, according to his biographies, assisted in the construction of the U.S.S. United States, so he must have met Barry, charged with out fitting the ship.

As for Somers, Koedel writes, "(Somers) knew Captain John Barry through his brother-in-law, William Jonas Keen, cousin to Barry's wife. Barry was to become the captain of the U.S. United States and Commodore of the West Indies squadron, so we may speculate that he was influential in getting Somers on his vessel."

If so, he also could have used his influence in getting Somers, Decatur, Stewart and Russ into the Episcopal Academy as students under his tutelage.

Although Commodore Barry was indeed Catholic, that would not preclude him from teaching at the Episcopal school. It appears that the Philadelphia Free Academy, as Russ mentioned years later, was a school for the city's "elite," regardless of religion, and the city's Quaker traditions would have encouraged cooperation between religions.

While Commodore Barry received no formal education, he was trained at sea by his uncle, and as Megan Fraser herself says, his education can be measured by his writings, letters and reports rather than by his formal schooling. Schools at the time certainly didn't have the required teacher training and official certification they have today, and the teachers were likely selected by what they had to offer the students. Among the chosen careers of the boys at the Academy was going to sea in ship, and the crafts of seamanship should have been among the subjects taught.

As John Barry writes (26 May 1797) to Dr. John Bullus, who failed to get a Navy commission, "if you study the art of Seamanship as well as you have studied physics you may in time not only be a Lieut. but a Captain…," something one could imagine him saying to young school students as well.

[ http://www.history.navy.mil/library/manuscript/barry.htm ]

Indeed, among Richard Somers' school notebooks is the notation - "navigation," a subject that Commodore Barry would have been well qualified as an instructor.

In addition to his connections to Bishop White and Richard Somers, John Barry had sailed as a captain for the merchant house owned by the father of Charles Stewart, and of those sixty some young students, of those we know of who attended this school – Stewart, Decatur, Russ and Somers, were destined to be sailors.

If Commodore Barry was responsible for overseeing the laying out of the U.S.S. United States, you can be sure that the four young Free Academy students were witnesses to the construction and outfitting of the ship, and may have participated in the preparation for its launching, as Decatur's biographies attest.

The U.S.S. United States was launched in Philadelphia on July 10, 1797 before a crowd of 30,000 people, almost the entire population of the city at the time.


With Charles Stewart appointed Lieutenant, because of age and seniority, and Stewart, Deactur and Ross commissioned Midshipman, and if they hadn't been his protégés at the Academy all along, the young Academy schoolmates were now shipmates, under Barry's command.

In Stewart's biography, Berbe and Rodgaard write, "In the midshipman's berth on the United States were two future standouts of the young navy: Charles; friends Mid. Stephen Decatur and Mid. Richard Somers. With the three childhood friends together again, one could imagine that all three thought that the USS United States was an extension of their childhood days at Dr. Abercrombie's Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. Under Barry's watchful eye, the four junior officers worked the United States through the rest of her fitting out work. When the frigate was ready for sea, Captain Barry set sail for the West Indies.

Since Commodore John Barry did write and publish a book, on naval flag signals, that publication gives an example of his work that could be compared to the Philadelphia Spelling Book to see if they were written by the same person.

For a definitive resolution, handwriting samples of the school master John Barry, and author of the Philadelphia Spelling Book should be located and compared with the signature of Commodore John Barry, thus resolving the issue for sure, one way or the other. (The Episcopal Academy, still in operation today, may have a sample of his signature, or the U.S. copyright office should have his signature from the copyright of The Philadelphia Spelling Book).

If they were different people, then who was John Barry, the Irish immigrant, Hibernian, author of the copyrighted Philadelphia Spelling Book, and teacher of the four students who would become the first class of midshipman in the United States Navy?

If not the Wexford, Ireland born Hibernian and author of the Navy Signal book, Captain of the U.S.S. United States and commander of the first class of midshipmen in the United States Navy, then who was the other John Barry?

[This is a work in progres, comments and critiques welcome]

William Kelly – billykelly3@yahoo.com [609-425-6297]






Edited by William Kelly
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now
  • Create New...