As most school children know, John Barry was an American Revolutionary War hero who is generally recognized as the “Father of the U.S. Navy,” but after that, the details get fuzzy.
A serious biography of John Barry is a once in a lifetime occurrence so we are lucky to be able to get Tim McGrath’s John Barry – An American Hero in the Age of Sail, which gloriously details what the school texts leave out.

It’s been 75 years since the last real biography of Barry, William Bell Clark’s Gallant John Barry – the Story of a Naval Hero of Two Wars (MacMillan, 1938), which rekindled the debate over whether or not Barry actually deserves the title of “Father of the U.S. Navy,” but McGrath decisively answers that question without really outright saying so. Since Philadelphia is Barry’s adopted hometown, many, if not most, of the significant events in his life took place in or around Philadelphia, which is also Tim McGrath’s hometown, and McGrath paints an interesting and accurate portrait of the man and the revolutionary times in which he lived there.

Besides the statue of Barry that stands nearby his grave behind Independence Hall, the Commodore Barry Bridge spans the Delaware River – the same river that Barry sailed forth to fight the British, and that Washington crossed to surprise the Hessians at Trenton, using artillery from Barry’s ship, and it’s the same river forged by the cattle drive Barry helped lead to Valley Forge to supply Washington’s army. Barry, as McGrath establishes, isn’t the Father of the Navy because of his exemplary Revolutionary War record, John Barry is the “Father of the U.S. Navy” because he followed Washington’s order to raise a class of midshipmen to serve as the first officers of the U.S. Navy, and they went on to distinguish themselves and establish style and traditions that are upheld by the U.S. Navy today.
– Bill Kelly
(621 pages/Westholme/$35.00)