Brigadier General John A. Kress was born in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania in 1839 and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1861. He began his career as an officer when he joined the 25th New York Infantry as the aide de camp for General James S. Wadsworth.
He served throughout the Civil War and commanded the 94th New York Volunteers in many battles, including Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. For his services at Gettysburg, he was cited in dispatches for gallantry and brevetted a Lieutenant Colonel of Volunteers.
When a vacancy for a regular second lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps developed in 1863, he took the necessary examination and was appointed. He soon became a lieutenant colonel again and was assigned to the 117th U.S. Colored Infantry. In this capacity, he obtained some of the scarce Spence Repeating Rifles for his men and led them in the capture of a Confederate fort which had repeatedly resisted previous assaults. He also served during the war as Chief Ordnance Officer of the Army of the James, and Inspector General of the 20th Army Corps. After the Civil War, he received an appointment as a first lieutenant in the Ordnance Department, but retained his rank of Lieutenant Colonel of Volunteers. He did this so as to remain in a position where he could monitor and participate in Ordnance activities. He was assigned to several powder depots and arsenals, most memorably the U.S. Arsenal at Vancouver Barracks in Washington.
A captain at the time, he received orders to repel an Indian attack. He commandeered the river steamer "Spokane," armed it with Gatling guns, and trained a platoon of his Ordnance Detachment to act as a gunboat crew. He and his crew moved 255 miles up river, intercepted the hostile Indians and drove them back into Oregon. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for these actions.