Rogue Quartermaster of the West
The brief biography of Brigadier-General Justus McKinstry in “General’s in Blue” (Ezra J. Warner, LSU Press, 1964) describes him as “one of the most thoroughgoing rogues ever to wear a United States uniform.” Graduated from West Point, he survived a courts-martial which could have stifled his military career and future ill-gotten earnings. Warner begins the biography with:
“Justus McKinstry . . . was born July 6, 1814, in New York, probably in Columbia County. He moved with his parents to Michigan as a young boy and was appointed to the Military Academy from there. He was graduated in the class of 1838 which furnished an unusually large proportion of general officers to the Union and Confederate armies.”
To his credit, McKinstry served meritoriously in the war with Mexico under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott.
When the War Between the States commenced in 1861, then-Major McKinstry was appointed chief quartermaster of the Department of the West in St. Louis. He was charged with acquiring military supplies through various civilian contractors, and it was reported that his administration there “was rife with fraud and abuse.” McKinstry had civilian allies as “unscrupulous businessmen and adventurers defrauded the public of large sums of money,” and it was often unstated, but clearly implied, that “a goodly portion of that money stuck to the palms of the man who approved the expenditures.” This was McKinstry.
Warner continues: “While in charge of the quartermaster’s department, [McKinstry] found ample opportunity to line his own pockets at the expense of the government. Among the exactions levied upon contractors who wished to do business with his office was a three-thousand dollar silver service for Mrs. McKinstry.
The contractor’s usual procedure for absorbing these obligations was for one contractor to bill another for goods at an enormous advance in price; these goods would then be sold to the quartermaster’s department at “market.” One St. Louis firm admitted profits of $280,000 on sales of $800,000 in a few months under the administration of McKinstry.
On September 2, 1861, he was promoted to brigadier of volunteers and commanded a division under General John C. Fremont who was ordered to invade Missouri with a large army which needed provisions and equipment. Fremont himself was no stranger to controversy.
In John McElroy’s “The Struggle for Missouri” the author writes that “Fremont, in the palatial Brandt Mansion, for which the Government was paying the very unusual rent of $6,000 per year, was maintaining a vice regal court as difficultly available as that of any crowed head of Europe.”
Regarding the autocratic Fremont’s expensive entourage, McElroy states that his “uncounted and glittering staff, which seemed to have received the Pentecostal gift of tongues – in which English was not included – was headed by a mysterious “Adlatus” – a title before unknown in America or to the dictionary’s . . .”
Those surrounding Fremont knew little or nothing of Missouri, geography or its affairs, though their purpose was to hold the State in the territorial union now centered in Washington. Like a European duke, Fremont maintained a personal bodyguard of 300 hand-picked men and by mid-1862 had quarreled sufficiently with his superiors to be all but cashiered.
Warner writes that “Upon the succession of General David Hunter to command of the department, McKinstry’s peculations were investigated. And after a year in arrest he was cashiered, January 28, 1863, “for neglect and violation of duty, to the prejudice of good order and military discipline,” the only such sentence handed a general officer in the war.
McKinstry’s later record is obscure and for a time he was a stockbroker in New York, and later a land agent in Missouri. He died in St. Louis on December 11, 1897 and is buried in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com