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1783 Two Hundred Years Ago

July 2024
1min read

The last naval engagement of the Revolution was fought on March 10 by the American frigate Alliance (thirtysix guns) and three British ships: the frigates Sybil and Alarm and the sloop Tobago . A preliminary peace treaty had been signed in November and hostilities on land had ceased, but word had not spread to all the ships at sea.

The Alliance was commanded by John Barry, an Irishman who settled in Philadelphia around 1760. A prosperous shipowner, he offered his services to the Continental Congress when war broke out and distinguished himself in several battles—he won Washington’s personal congratulations for his “gallantry and address.”

The Alliance was coming home from Cuba, carrying hard currency and escorting a smaller vessel, the Lauzun . A few days out of Havana they encountered the British ships, which tried to separate the Lauzun from her protector. Barry interposed the Alliance and, when hailed by Sybil , is said to have shouted, “This is the United States Ship Alliance , saucy Jack Barry, half Irishman, half Yankee. Who are you?” There is no record of a reply. The Britons opened fire, but Barry held off until the two ships were within pistol range. Then he let loose a well-aimed broadside, badly mauling the British ship. After a hot half-hour’s action, the stricken Sybil limped off to join the Alarm and the Tobago , which, with a reticence uncharacteristic of the Royal Navy, had not joined the fight. The American ships sailed on to Newport, where they anchored on March 20. Three days later they learned that the war was over, and they had won.

Philip Freneau, the “Poet of the American Revolution,” saluted Barry in this ringing stanza:

This is the ship Alliance From Philadelphia town, And proudly bids defiance To England’s king and crown. A captain on her deck I stand To guard her banner true, Half Yankee and half Irishman: What tyrant’s slave are you?

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