In late December of 2012, Tim McGrath, author of John Barry, An American Hero In The Age Of Sail, reviewed here, was kind enough to give this blogger almost two hours of his valuable time (he’s busy finishing up a new book, and running a business). Because of the length of the interview, this is the last of three parts.
Martin: I think you did a great job in capturing who John Barry was and what he was like. You managed to produce a sympathetic, but not hagiographic portrayal. What struck you most about Barry’s personality?
Tim McGrath: It was more or less that his ambition is right below the surface. He had a great sense of humor. He had maritime skills as good as anyone’s. Everyone commented on what a really terrific sailor and commander he was. He had the respect of everyone. People like Washington and Henry Knox. He was fearless. but underneath all that was this driving ambition that he was going to better his life. He was going to be someone. He went from being a captain at 21 to purchasing, basically, a plantation toward the end of his career.
But the thing that goes hand in glove with that is the that there is a lot of compassion and empathy in Barry. He becomes known as such a soft touch for anyone who shows up in Philadelphia from Ireland. They were constantly coming to his door, needing money, or lodging. There’s letters showing him helping someone trying to get a job as a bank clerk, or a sailor, or a mate.
There’s one story I got a kick out of, where some Philadelphia wastrel brought a young girl from Ireland to serve as an indenture to him. He was so mean to her that she ran away. When she was caught and brought back, he wanted nothing to do with her, so he sent her to Barry, because he would know how to handle the situation.
This pattern repeats itself in his relationships with his relatives in Ireland. They were constantly asking if he could lend them or give them money, which he always did.
His relationship with his brother-in-law, the oldest brother of his second wife, is very interesting. William Austin was a staunch loyalist who supported the British when they were in Philadelphia. One of the great discoveries we got from the David Library of the American Revolution just before the book was published was a couple of affidavits showing Austins involvement on the British side. It turns out that he was given command of a twenty-gun ship under Benedict Arnold’s expedition down the Chesapeake. And William got captured at Yorktown. Barry wrote a letter to Washington, when he hears, asking if he can help get his brother-in-law off the hook. Barry certainly doesn’t mention his involvement with Benedict Arnold. Barry’s no fool, but Washington writes back that he can’t help him, and that he [Barry] has to go through proper channels.
But when William is exiled to Nova Scotia and England, Barry maintains correspondence with him. Because Barry’s wife, Williams own sister, and the other brother want nothing to do with him. I thought that was an interesting insight into his character. Here’s a guy that’s basically his enemy and caused their family a lot of grief because the family’s estate was seized by the Pennsylvania government. Barry and his other brother-in-law spent years trying to reclaim the family’s estate, and Barry continued writing letters to him [William] addressed to “my dear brother,” when his own family didn’t want to hear from him at all.
Martin: I enjoyed your book for lots of reasons, but I especially liked seeing other characters from Barry’s perspective. How did you piece together the relationship between Franklin and Barry?
Tim McGrath: It kind of pieced itself together. The letters start as being a straight on report. I don’t know if he met Franklin before the war; he didn’t meet him during the war. It is interesting that other sea captains, like Lamber Weakes, Gustavas Cunningham, John Paul Jones, and Sam Nicholson, once they were in France, immediately went to Paris and fell under Franklin’s spell. Barry never left port.
I don’t know if it was culture shock or what, but at the same time, he requested things from Franklin- money to pay his hands, permission to recruit American sailors and things he needed to refit. Franklin’s letters are very commiserating but not very helpful. At the same time, Franklin would make requests of Barry that almost sounded cavalier. “Oh while you’re here, I want you to sail up to Holland and help with this that and the other.” Barry would write back saying “I have specific orders and am going to adhere to them.”
They really didn’t get along too well.
On one of his voyages back to America, Barry carried a letter from Franklin to Robert Morris, who thought the world of Barry, in which he [Franklin] said of Barry, that he was “a great man, bothered by small things.”
Morris wrote back to Franklin and defended Barry, essentially saying, “He’s doing what I told him to do, lay off!”
The coupe de grace in the relationship was, after the Constitutional Convention, poor Franklin was head of the Supreme Executive Council … I’m sure you’ve read the stories about Franklin’s gout and kidney stones. So when Barry did hijack McCalmont and Miley, the two reluctant assemblyman to their duty*, … There are letters documenting Franklin saying of course this is the wrong thing to do … even though this is exactly what he wanted done! He kind of gets the last word in their relationship, when he says “we should issue a warrant for Barry and probably issue a warrant for his arrest”.
And that is when Charles Biddle tells him over dinner, they’re going to put you in jail unless you go to China soon. So they really don’t have the grandest of relationships. Franklin had much better relationships with the other naval captains than he did with Barry.
Martin: You wrote about Mad Anthony Wayne and Barry’s campaign to distract the British and round up cattle for the Army at Valley Forge. I think I remember reading that they remained friends throughout their lives. Can you talk a little more about this?
Tim McGrath: He’s fascinating. He walks that fine line between being an overblown hero and a real decent guy. There is a rush of letters between Wayne and Barry when they were conducting their cattle venture. When they get to Jersey, people are hiding their cattle. Whether they are loyalists or patriots, they don’t want to lose their livestock for Continental Scrip. They have anywhere from 150 to 500 head. Can you imagine them trying to get them on the barges? Just from the understated reports of both men it must have something. If Noah had been told to just get the cattle on the ark we’d all be vegetarians.
But, when the British get clued in to what is going on and they send transports down the river to catch these guys, it almost reads like a John Wayne movie … Red River or something … “Ok, we’ll send the cattle up this way, and then, “Pilgrim,” you go down here and burn the haystacks and they’ll follow you.”
So, they really developed a mutual admiration for each other right then and there in those couple of weeks.
And then afterwards there’s the letters from 1784. Barry came up with an idea. His sailors are penniless, it’s winter, and they’re cold, and they and their families are hungry. He and John Brown come up with a plan to buy the sailor’s shares at half. This might sound bad at first, but remember Barry had no money either and he was trying to get them some money to at least survive on. So they borrowed money from a bank, and then the bank called the loan. That’s what prompted his note to Wayne asking to borrow the $200.
Wayne’s response was interesting, because he was very sympathetic and said that he was expecting some rents, but that he also hadn’t been paid for his service in the army. It gives an interesting insight into the financial status of even very successful warrior officers who were broke, poor as field mice.
Martin: Reading your book makes me want to read more about Robert Morris. He seemed to be the elder in their relationship. How did this relationship change over the years? What happened when Morris went bankrupt?
Tim McGrath: There is not much paperwork on that. One thing … Barry was loyal. There’s a couple of letters toward the end of Barry’s life about recommending different young men for various berths, and the correspondence was very cordial.
The only time their relationship ever got funky was when Barry was supposed to take the Alliance to Holland with a load of tobacco.
Barry never got off the American coast, the Alliance struck a rock and the bottom tier of Tobacco was ruined. When Barry writes a letter to Morris explaining this, he is very philosophical, saying, oh well, the best laid plans….
It was the only time Barry seemed offhand, and I wonder if it had anything to do with Barry not getting the first voyage to China, which went to another of Barry’s captains, John Greene.
The last letters I saw between Barry and Morris were very cordial, at a time when Morris was obviously in real disfavor, both personally and politically.
Martin: I thought your comments on Barry and David Porter Sr. were interesting since I just finished a book about David Porter Jr. Apparently, Barry didn’t think much of the elder Porter. How did you come to this conclusion?
Tim McGrath: I was surprised with that because of the families’ traditions and their naval service. I could never quite figure out what Barry knew about Porter that made him unwilling to lift a finger to help Porter get a commission in the new navy. But that was one of the admirable things about Barry. There are very few cases where he would write about someone, “to hell with him.” There was the situation where he was supposed to sink the Effingham, his frigate. This always seemed like a scene from a colonial version of caddyshack. There was the back and forth with Franklin. I never came across what turned him off on Porter, though, although something definitely did.
Martin: Do you think there is a parallel between Nelson and Barry? (You referred to Barry’s ship as a floating naval academy.) They were contemporaries. Do you think that Barry knew of Nelson?
Tim McGrath: He might have known him, I’m not too sure. Nicholas Biddle was a shipmate of Nelson’s on an expedition well before the Revolution by the Royal Navy going up to the North Pole. So those two guys knew each other.
When Barry was on the United States, he actually entertains the fellow who burned Washington. But I never found any connections to suggest Barry knew of Nelson.
Martin: I loved the connections you made in the book between Barry and Paine, Barry and Deane, Lafayette and Franklin, Washington, and Cochrane. Which connections surprised you?
Tim McGrath: I think the one that I enjoyed the most, although I knew it was there, was the correspondence with Washington. Their relationship really started when Barry was involved with Wayne. There is a wonderful letter while there was a battle being fought on an island in the Delaware with the British navy against the ships Barry’s taken. Where Barry is writing to General Washington saying. “I’ve got engineering tools, we’re sending to you later. But in the meantime, here is a couple of cheeses and jar of pickled oysters that crave your acceptance”.
Their letters back and forth are very warm. Barry wrote to Washington when he was President of the United States about who he saw in China and what was going on there. I kind of knew that there would be something there with the start of the United States Navy, but those letters never fail to amaze. Not a surprise, but tough to beat.
Martin: Thanks so much for your time, we’re almost done!
Martin: Which questions do you normally get asked, that I neglected to ask? What did I miss?
Tim McGrath: I was pleased that you didn’t say “how come people think Jones is the father of the American Navy and not Barry?” When that is not asked at a presentation I’m generally surprised, but certainly not bothered by it. I don’t think there is any one father of the navy.
One thing that we didn’t get into. His second wife Sarah. Whether or not Barry could lay claim to being the father of the navy, she could lay claim to being the mother of the navy. She had a niece who married Richard Dale. Richard Sommers is related to her. After Barry dies, naval officers always paid courtesy visits to her.
She grew into a rather feisty lady by the time he was involved in the Quasi-War with France. She was in charge of the plantation. One thing that didn’t make the cut in the book was a back and forth between Sarah and a manure salesman. “You promised so much hay for so much manure. I’m sure you’re not taking advantage of the wife of a man who is presently risking his life for his country, but of course if that is the case, I can assure you that you’re dealing with the wrong lady!” And he writes back, “Of course not, the wagons of hay are on their way.” It was a great exchange and I got a real kick out of it.
Then after Barry dies – she became a shrewd investor in everything from a turnpike to ships and the goods in their holds. She was a very wise and remarkable lady.
She writes all her letters to Barry as “my dear life”. My favorite was one she wrote to Barry towards the end of the Quasi-War, “Written by candlelight without spectacles.”
I would have loved to have met her. She must have been a piece of work.
Martin: Yeah, it sounds like a similar relationship to the one between John Adams and Abigail.
Tim McGrath: You are exactly right. They really were partners.
Martin: What is your next project?
Tim McGrath: We are almost finished with a manuscript for a book that’s going to be called, Give Me a Fast Ship, about the Continental Navy for New American Library, AL Penguin. In it Barry is back on stage again, but sharing it with other captains, officers, and sailors of the Continental Navy.
Again, just finding the stories of what these guys did, of what kind of men they were, and as best as I can turn out, the women that produced them or married them.
It has been a joy to find. They’re great stories, you just hope that you can get out of their way and let the story be told. Some of them are heroic, some are almost farcical and some are very sad.
It’s said that the Civil War is the American Iliad, well, having done all this research on the start of the American Navy, I’d have to say this is our Odyssey.
Martin: Thanks again for your time. I can hardly wait for your new book to come out.
Tim McGrath: We’ll make sure you get a copy! I appreciate your taking the time and am very grateful for your interest.
*In an intriguing interlude after the war, when the Constitution was up for ratification, Barry played an interesting, if dubious role in getting it ratified in Pennsylvania. For details, check out the review of Mr. McGrath’s book.