On this Christmas Eve in 1826, military cadets at West Point riot. This nearly forgotten, alcohol-fueled uprising has come to be known as the Eggnog Riot.
Today, eggnog is a harmless dairy drink, but it wasn’t always that way. Indeed, it’s said that George Washington had his own special eggnog recipe, which included rum, sherry, brandy, and whiskey.
With this background, perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that eggnog was a traditional part of Christmas celebrations at West Point during the early 1800s. In 1826, however, West Point’s superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, instituted a new rule: No alcohol on campus.
“A few of the cadets took Thayer’s regulations as a challenge,” a U.S. Army description concludes, “and intended to outsmart the superintendent and his staff by having the best holiday celebration West Point had seen.”
These enterprising cadets hatched a plan to sneak alcohol into the military academy. When Christmas Eve rolled around, the cadets were ready—but so was Thayer. He’d directed Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Lt. William A. Thorton to monitor the North Barracks.
At midnight, everything seemed calm. That didn’t last too long! Within a matter of hours, Hitchcock was awakened by the sounds of drunken revelry. He broke up a party in one room, then found a party in another. The cadets were smashed! Some refused to reveal their identities. One cadet reportedly urged his fellow cadets to grab bayonets and pistols.
In an interesting twist, one of the cadets that Hitchcock encountered during this time was none other than Jefferson Davis. Hitchcock instructed Davis to return to his room—and Davis complied. Possibly, he returned to his room and passed out after too much drinking. Either way, his decision to stay in his room ultimately saved him from a court martial.
Others didn’t show similar good judgment.
Lt. Thorton was threatened with a sword and hit with a plank of wood. Things were getting dicey, so Hitchcock found a relief sentinel, and told him to “bring the ‘com here.”
He meant the Commandant of Cadets, but the drunken cadets misunderstood what they’d overheard. They thought artillery men were coming to get them. Things quickly went from bad to worse.
“A large number of cadets got on a spree,” an eyewitness later testified, “and became excessively riotous . . . setting all officers at defiance and even, with a drawn sword, chasing one to his room—throwing missiles through the halls, breaking windows and the railings of the stairs, &c.”
Finally, men began to sober up, and the Eggnog Riot died down.
“When the reveille sounded at 6:05 A.M. on Christmas morning,” author Christopher Klein writes, “the sober cadets who had rested well inside the South Barracks arose with military discipline. The North Barracks, however, exhibited quite a hangover. The disheveled dormitory sported broken windows, smashed furniture, banisters ripped from stairways and shattered plates, dishes and cups.”
Nearly one-third of West Point’s student body had participated in the riot. Any of these cadets could have been court martialed, but that would have reflected poorly on the institution. West Point wasn’t the established academy that it is today. Thayer knew he couldn’t give the institution’s opponents any excuse to shut the school down.
In the end, only the worst offenders were court-martialed. Ultimately, 19 cadets were found guilty and expelled. Eight of the 19, however, received a recommendation of clemency. Five of those would eventually graduate from West Point.
How’s that for an unexpected Christmas story?! Merry Christmas Eve, everyone!
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Carol S. Funck, The Eggnog Riot (U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center; Dec. 22, 2010)
Christopher Klein, When Eggnog Sparked a Riot at West Point (History; Dec. 19, 2016)
Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (2007)
Natasha Geiling, Eggnog: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Starts a Holiday Riot (Smithsonian Mag.; Dec. 19, 2013)
William James Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American (2001)