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Early in Life, John Kessler (September 21, 1761 – March 17, 1840) volunteered for military service in the American Revolution. His combat sea service in the American Revolution produced valued notes, records, and articles used by historians and biographers to define early American naval history together with Captain John Barry's courageous naval leadership and service securing America's independence from the British.

Early lifeEdit

Kessler, the second son of German immigrants Leonard Kessler and Mary Ritchouer Kessler, began Philadelphia apprenticeships in wholesale dry goods, malting, brewing, and tobacco merchandising in 1772 before joining the American Revolution Military at age 16 in 1776.[1] His initial service was part time in a volunteer unit that later marched to Perth Amboy and Elizabeth Towndisambiguation needed. He continued his apprenticeship until he accepted privateer sea service.[1]

Privateer seaman on the brig DelawareEdit

Young Kessler’s initial service as an entry level privateer sailor proved to be the fortunate beginning of a long term relationship, signing the muster rolls of the brig Delaware. Her captain, the Irish-born John Barry, had begun his sailing life at age 9 by signing on to his uncle’s private ship as a cabin boy. He learned fast, and at age 21 was selected to be captain of a small Philadelphia merchantman.[2] Barry grew to identify with America as his country, and Philadelphia as his home. By the time the American Revolution began Barry was a seasoned mariner and received a captain’s commission in the Continental Navy from the President of Congress, John Hancock, in March, 1776.[2] On April 7, 1776 Captain Barry’s brigantine, the Lexington, engaged and captured the British sloop Edward. It was the Continental Navy’s first combat victory. During the war Barry became so successful against both Royal Naval vessels and Loyalist privateers that Admiral Richard Howe offered him a handsome sum and captain’s commission in George III’s navy.[2]

In 1779, Barry was without a command in the Continental Navy; Congress permitted him to accept the captaincy of the privateer brig Delaware. John Kessler began his maritime career under Barry’s watchful eye. In Barry, the teenage Kessler acquired his best possible mentor; in Kessler, Barry found a loyal, smart understudy who became a trusted associate and friend for life.[2][3] He promoted Kessler from landsman to steward, clerk, and later Captain of Marines.[2][3] The Delaware’s cruise to Port au Prince, Haiti, resulted in the capture of two prize eligible vessels.[1]

When the Delaware returned to Philadelphia, Barry returned to service in the Continental Navy, while Kessler remained with the privateer, whose command was transferred to Lieutenant James Collins. A subsequent voyage to St. Eustatia and Port au Prince returned to Philadelphia without incident.[1]

On their next voyage to Port au Prince, the Delaware and her crew were captured by three British frigates, HMS Phoenix, Pomona, and Lowstoff.[4] Lieutenant Collins, Kessler, and their fellow sailors were greeted by their captor, Sir Hyde Parker, with: ”My Lads, you will now consider yourselves as belonging to his Britannic Majesty’s Ship Phoenix, and if you behave yourselves well you will be treated the same as the rest of the crew. But had I my will, I would hang every one of you for fighting against your King and Country.”[4] John Kessler was assigned to the Pomona. He was treated well, but was soon incarcerated by the British in Kingston, Jamaica on July 15, 1780. Sir Hyde Parker’s flagship, Phoenix, encountered very harsh weather, and soon ran aground, damaged beyond repair.[4]

Collins, Kessler, and about 15 crewmembers were assisted by Lieutenant Collins’ brother, who worked in Jamaica and helped them escape their Kingston captors in a small vessel. They sailed to Port au Prince, and arrived there on September 27, 1780. Once ashore, they decided to seek passage to America separately. Kessler took passage on a 20 gun ship whose destination was Salem, Massachusetts.[1][3]

Midshipman and master mate on the Frigate AllianceEdit

A penniless, raggedly-clothed John Kessler arrived in Salem, Massachusetts on November 11, 1780. Having had no friend or contact in Salem, he learned that Captain Barry was captain of the 36 gun frigate Alliance docked in Boston. In spite of Kessler’s shabby appearance, Barry recognized him immediately and gave him a hearty welcome. Desperately short of hands, Barry was as glad to see Kessler as he was glad to see Barry. Kessler accepted the position of acting midshipman aboard the Alliance. Thus began his service in the Continental Navy.[1][3]

For the next two years, their service together on the Alliance included engaging and capturing enemy ships of war on the high seas; safely transporting war leaders such as Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Paine, and Colonel Laurens from America to France; overpowering a mutiny; and transporting desperately needed currency to America.[1][2][5] Barry’s courage, integrity, leadership, and sailing knowledge insured his, Midshipman Kessler’s, and the Alliance’s survival under combat and severe weather. Kessler’s duties expanded to ship’s log keeper, allowing him to enter accounts of major naval combat activities.

One of the most famous engagements occurred on May 29, 1781 when the Alliance was engaged by two British ships - the Atalanta and Trepassey. Initially the Alliance was adrift by calm winds. The two British ships used their sweeps to maneuver themselves into advantageous positions off the Alliance’s stern. For three hours, their combined broadsides swept the deck and quarterdeck of the frigate, tearing into the rigging while inflicting numerous casualties. Kessler was wounded in the leg, and Barry was seriously wounded in the shoulder. Barry’s loss of blood required his removal from the main deck but when his Lieutenant, Hoystead Hacker, suggested surrender, an enraged Barry emphatically declared that surrender would not be considered, and he demanded to be brought back to the Alliance’s deck if Hacker had truly lost his will to keep fighting.[2][3]

The emboldened Lieutenant Hacker resumed command and followed Barry’s orders not to surrender. Soon the wind returned, allowing Alliance to sail and take control of the fight. In minutes, her broadsides changed the momentum of the battle.[1][2][3][5]

One British captain was killed; soon the surviving British captain Sampson Edwards, surrendered both ships. Kessler brought Edwards aboard the Alliance to Barry’s cabin. When Edwards offered Barry his sword, he refused, simply saying “I return it to you, Sir – you have merited it and your King ought to give you a better ship – here is my cabin at your service, use it as if your own.”[2][5] Throughout the war, Barry’s treatment of prisoners was exemplary, and could be considered a paradigm for the standard of behavior accepted by today’s United States military under similar circumstances. The Alliance continued cruising the Atlantic, its campaign, capturing a host of prizes. By war’s end, Barry had promoted Kessler to Master’s Mate.[2][5]

The Treaty of Paris signaled the end of the American Revolution. Barry had captured the first enemy ship of the American Revolution and, on March 10, 1783, fought the last sea battle of the American Revolution. The Alliance’s arrival in Providence on March 25, 1783 signaled the end of Kessler’s service in America’s Continental Navy.[1][2][5]

Early chronicler of American navy historyEdit

Captain Barry was arguably the most brilliant and courageous sailing ship master of his time. He accumulated a superior knowledge of the sailing ship, its routes, and ports. He would develop techniques for the development of fast, maneuverable, sailing ships of war. His outside communications were direct, succinct, and effective, but not effusive.[2] He had self confidence and courage in his knowledge of the sailing ship and its environment, but was not self promoting, or arrogant.[2]

It would fall to future researchers and writers,[2][3][6][7][8][9][10] to establish John Barry’s exemplary war accomplishments and place in American history. Barry and Kessler had become trusted friends during America’s struggle for independence. They both resided in the Philadelphia area in the years following the American Revolutionary War and maintained their friendship. After Barry’s death, their mutual friend John Brown teamed with Kessler to write early sketches of Barry’s life for a magazine publication, Port Folio. Kessler’s autobiographical sketch and his writings on Barry are on file at the Pennsylvania State Archives.[1][4][5] Since 1903, they have been used as a foundational reference for early American naval history and four biographers of Captain John Barry.[2][3][6][7][8][10][11]

Distinguished Philadelphia citizenEdit

John Kessler’s post-war business and government career began in Boston. He married Abigail Anderson on October 6, 1783. Abigail gave birth to their first son, John, on July 11, 1784. He first moved his small family and fledgling business activities to Waldeborough, Maine. He moved to Philadelphia in May, 1793, and initially established himself as a shopkeeper. From their marriage until her death on December 3, 1793 Abigail gave birth to a total of six children. Five of them died shortly after birth. Only their first son survived to maturity.[1]

In May, 1795, Kessler married a widow, Martha Berrill Shriver.[1] He gave up his shop keeping and applied his administrative and writing skills to assume valued administrative positions of responsibility in Philadelphia. In 1800 he was elected to the state legislature.[1] this elevated the public’s recognition of his administrative and financial talents that would offer many opportunities for future growth for the rest of his life.[1][2][3]

Kessler became friends with legendary steamboat co-inventor, clockmaker, and first coiner of the U. S. Mint – Henry Voigt.[12] Voigt assisted David Rittenhouse with the construction and repair of an orrery for Princeton University.[13] Voigt produced the surveying instrument used by U. S. Surveyor General, Isaac Briggs, to survey the Louisiana Purchase.[12][13][14] His surveying instrument, inscribed “Henry Voigt Philadelphia”, was transferred to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 1891.[14]

The Kessler and Voigt families became joined through marriage. Kessler’s son, John, married Voigt’s daughter, Catharine, at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Philadelphia on August 28, 1808.[15] Later, Kessler’s niece, Maria Kessler, married Voigt’s son Thomas.[1]

Thomas Voigt, after an apprenticeship with his father, Henry, assumed leadership of his family’s clock making business when his father was appointed by President Washington to be the first coiner of the first U.S. Mint.[13] One of their customers was President Thomas Jefferson. In 1812, Thomas built a floor-to-ceiling clock for President Jefferson known as the Astronomical Case Clock.[16] This clock is functional today and stands in President Jefferson’s study at his home, Monticello.[16] In 1816, under purchase order, Thomas constructed a large floor-to-ceiling clock for the U. S. Senate. It became known as The Ohio Clock[17] and is in daily operation today near the main entrance to the U. S. Senate chambers.

John Kessler, passed away on March 17, 1840, and resides with his wife, descendants, Henry, Maria, and Thomas Voigt at Laurel Hill National Park near Philadelphia, PA.


John Kessler's descendants visit Commodore John Barry's Statue at Wexford, Ireland.

John Kessler's descendants visit Commodore John Barry's Statue at Wexford, Ireland.

After the American Revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris, Captain Barry focused on securing back pay for his sailors. He also engaged in private shipping cruises to rebuild his own finances. In 1794, President Washington recognized that our emerging nation needed an organized Navy in addition to its Army. He offered six distinguished officers a commission in the new U. S. Navy as Captain with relative seniority rank. Barry became the U. S. Navy’s first and highest ranking Captain.[2] This appointment elevated him to the fledgling U. S. Navy’s equivalent to today’s Chief of Naval Operations. After accepting Washington’s appointment, Captain Barry and shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys began building and staffing the first ships to comprise the U. S. Navy. Barry later assumed command of the large frigate, United States, and served with the honorary rank of “Commodore” of the navy’s first squadron. He faithfully served his country under Presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson as its senior Navy Officer until his death in 1803.[2][3]

Commodore Barry’s fellow sailor, John Kessler, and longtime Irish friend John Brown eulogized their beloved Irish Catholic Commodore as “the first of patriots, and the best of men.”[2]

John Kessler’s descendants believe that John Barry was Ireland and God’s gift to America’s quest for freedom from Great Britain. His knowledge, courage, morality, decency, and integrity will serve as a perpetual role model for all that serve in the armed forces of the United States of America.

On behalf of the American People, President Dwight D. Eisenhower honored Commodore Barry’s service to the United States with the donation of a statue of Commodore Barry to the people of Wexford, Ireland on September 14, 1956.[18]

As a US Navy PT boat commander in World War II, President (then Lieutenant, j.g.) John F. Kennedy was also wounded engaging his country’s enemy - Japan. His blockade of Cuba, accompanied by his willingness to leave his opponents room to find a peaceful solution to the Cuba Missile Crisis, made sure that the event remained only a crisis. And, while his advisors debated strategy in the Oval Office, John Barry’s cutlass – the same one he used while serving with John Kessler, hung on the office wall. When President Kennedy visited Ireland, he placed a wreath at Commodore Barry’s statue at Wexford, Ireland on June 27, 1963.[19]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 Life of John Kessler an 1823 autobiography by John Kessler. It is on file at the Pennsylvania State Archives, 350 North Street, Harrisburg, PA 17120-0090
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 John Barry – An American Hero in the Age of Sail written by Tim McGrath published in 2010 by Westholme Publishing, LLC, 904 Edgewood Road Yardley, Pennsylvania 19067
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Give Me A Fast Ship – The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea written by Tim McGrath published in 2014 by the Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Loss of the Phoenix written by John Kessler is on file at the Pennsylvania State Archives, 350 North Street, Harrisburg, PA 17120-0090
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Rough Sketch of Life of Commodore Barry written by John Kessler at the request of Mrs. Barry for a publication known as Port Folio. It is on file at the Pennsylvania State Archives, 350 North Street, Harrisburg, PA 17120-0090
  6. 6.0 6.1 Commodore John Barry written by Martin I. J. Griffin published in Philadelphia by the author in 1903 and sponsored by 400 subscriptions including 4 from John Kessler’s Great-Grandson Brigadier General Harry C. Kessler of Butte, Montana
  7. 7.0 7.1 Catholics And The American Revolution V2 written by Martin I. J. Griffin published in Philadelphia by the Author in 1909 and sponsored by 614 patrons
  8. 8.0 8.1 Commodore John Barry – Father of the American Navy written by Joseph Gurn published in New York in 1933 by P. J. Kennedy & Sons, Publishers
  9. Father of the American Navy – Captain John Barry written by Floyd Anderson published in 1959 by Benziger Brothers, Inc. New York, Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, San Francisco
  10. 10.0 10.1 Father of the American Navy – A Story of Captain John Barry (Revised) written by Brother Flavius, C.S.G. published in 1966 by Dujarie Press at Notre Dame, Indiana
  11. A Naval History of the American Revolution – Chapters 16 and 17
  12. 12.0 12.1 Henry Voigt - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 History Corner: Henry Voigt Professional Surveyor Archives by Silvio A. Bedini Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
  14. 14.0 14.1 Transit and Equal Altitude Instrument Smithsonian National Museum of American History Behring Center Physical Sciences Collection – Surveying and Geodesy Catalogue number: PH*311772
  15. Marriage records of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Philadelphia on file at the Philadelphia Historical Society
  16. 16.0 16.1 Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia article on President Jefferson’s Astronomical Case Clock
  17. Ohio Clock – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  18. Letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ireland President O’Kelly dated September 14, 1956 courtesy of the American Presidency Project
  19. Commodore John Barry - Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia’s pages

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