December 25, 1826, at West Point was not a typical Christmas morning. Cadets stumbled from their barracks, clothes torn or astrew. Many were barefoot, cursing, still drunk from the night before. Behind the cadets, West Point's North Barracks stood in a state of near ruin. Windows had been smashed, along with the building's furniture. Banisters had been ripped from stairways, thrown down with other rubble. Shards of shattered plates, dishes an cups lined the ground. Looking at the mix of hungover and drunk cadets, the officer of the day dismissed the corps. It had been a long night for everyone. There had been, after all, a riot--caused by eggnog.
Earlier that year, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, the academy's strict and foreboding superintendent, had expressly forbidden the purchase, storage, or consumption alcohol at West Point, a move that reflected the bold discipline Thayer brought to West Point. Before Thayer became superintendent in 1817, West Point hardly resembled the esteemed military academy of modern times. When it first opened its doors in 1802, it was nothing more than a few ramshackle buildings with ten cadets taught by three teachers. Students were admitted at any point during the year, and admissions standards were laughable. All this began to change after the War of 1812, when America's military failings inspired Congress to spend more money on the institution. They instated Thayer as superintendent, hoping he would bring order to the derelict academy.
Known as "The Father of West Point," Thayer revolutionized the academy with his strict rules: students at West Point weren't allowed to leave campus, cook in their dorms or duel. Mostly, Thayer's monastic-like discipline succeeded in turning the academy from a chaotic institution to a respected place of learning. But Christmas morning 1826 brought more than a little chaos--it brought news of a riot that had included nearly one-third of West Point students and changed the face of the academy for decades to come.
Despite the destructive impacts of the riots, however, their story is largely unknown, especially by current West Point students. "Hardly anyone knows about it. If pooled among 4,400 cadets, 3,000 federal employees, 1,500 military staff and faculty, I doubt 30 people will know a thing about it," says West Point's command historian Sherman Fleek.
Sylvanus Thayer, "Father" of West Point. Portrait by Robert Weir. Image via Wikipedia.
Nowadays, eggnog isn't necessarily synonymous with alcohol: the stuff you buy on the shelves at grocery stores is nothing more than eggs, milk, cream, sugar and assorted spices, and Starbucks isn't slipping rum into their beloved latte version of eggnog. But in its nascence, eggnog was more often than not alcoholic, a descendant of a widely drunk hot-milk punch known as posset, which contained curdled wine or ale. In Medieval times, eggnog was enjoyed by the upper class only, as access to fresh milk was scarce. By the time eggnog crossed the Atlantic and reached Colonial America, however, the drink was enjoyed widely by people of all classes, thanks in large part to a new found abundance of ingredients--dairy farms were prevalent in the colonies, and during the height of the "Triangle Trade" (sugar, slaves and rum) rum was widely available as well. As such a widely available drink, eggnog became a very popular beverage with Americans; George Washington even had a famous recipe for the drink that included rum, sherry, brandy and whiskey for an extra kick.
Eggnog was a traditional part of West Point's annual Christmas celebration, but Thayer's moratorium on alcohol threw a wrench in the festivities. Not to be denied a night of revelry, some cadets set about smuggling in liquor from nearby taverns for the holiday party. One of the cadets was Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy. Jefferson had a history of bad behavior with alcohol. A member of the class of 1828, he was the first student to be arrested for going to Benny Haven, one of two taverns located near West Point and the only one which allowed students to barter for alcohol. Another time, Davis was reportedly so drunk that he fell down a 60-foot ravine. He wasn't one to shy away from a good party, and was enthusiastically on board with the other cadets' plan to bring booze to the holiday party.
Thayer's ban on alcohol didn't extend past the boundaries of the academy, and various watering holes still existed outside the confines of West Point. The most popular of these, Benny Haven's Tavern, is still immortalized in a mural on the mess hall's wall. At Benny Haven's, cadets could barter blankets and shoes for booze, though the bartering of anything from the school (uniforms, for example) was off limits. When Edgar Allan Poe attended West Point, he reportedly spent most of his time at Benny Haven's (which may explain his dismissal from the academy after only a year). Before 1826, another tavern existed on the property directly behind West Point. North's Tavern, as it was called, was so close to the academy that it often enticed cadets--Thayer dealt with this temptation by purchasing the property and turning the tavern into a hospital.
Benny Haven's proved too expensive to supply the amounts of liquor the cadets wanted to bring to the holiday party. Instead, several nights before Christmas, three cadets crossed the Hudson River to the the east bank to procure whiskey from the area's other tavern, Martin's Tavern. After imbibing a few glasses themselves, the cadets took the contraband booze back across the river to the academy. At the dock, they found an enlisted solider standing guard, but paid the man 35 cents for him to turn his back while they unloaded their cargo. The containers of alcohol were then stored among the cadets' private possessions, hidden until the night of Christmas--a total of three or four gallons of whiskey.
Thayer was strict, but he wasn't dense. Cadets had smuggled alcohol into the academy before, and those situations had been dealt with on an individual basis. He assumed that, with the holidays, there would be similar incidents--in fact, he discussed such a possibility with colleagues at a small party the night before. But Thayer took nothing more than standard precautions, assigning the same two officers--Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Lieutenant William A. Thorton--to monitor the North Barracks.
An engraving of West Point's original grounds, including the North Barracks (the leftmost building). Image via Wikipedia.
When Thorton and Hitchcock went to bed around midnight, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Four hours later, Hitchcock awoke to the sound of rowdy boys a few floors above him. Crashing the party, he found six or seven cadets, visibly inebriated. He ordered them to disperse back to their rooms, and turned to leave. Before he could return to his own quarters, however, Hitchcock heard the sound of another party happening in the adjoining bedroom. When he entered, he found another two drunk cadets, attempting to hide under a blanket. A third cadet, also drunk, refused to show his face, using a hat as a makeshift mask. As Hitchcock continued to demand the cadet reveal his identity, a few angry words were exchanged--enough to enrage other cadets nearby, who (after Hitchcock left) shouted: "Get your dirks and bayonets...and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!"
Spurred by alcohol-fortified courage, the Eggnog Riot was off and running. Soon enough, Hitchcock heard a commotion coming from floors below, seemingly larger and rowdier than the party he had broken up upstairs. On his way to intervene, he ran into a drunken Jefferson Davis, who burst into the room along with Hitchcock and announced (with terrible timing): "Put away the grog boys! Captain Hitchcock's coming!" Hitchcock, of course, was already there, and ordered Davis, who would eventually become famous for his exploits in the Mexican-American War, back to his room--Davis complied, saving himself from a court martial.
Other cadets were not as accommodating in their drunken state. Thorton, in his own attempt to break up gatherings, had a cadet threaten him with his sword--another cadet actually hit Thorton with a piece of wood, knocking him down. Things weren't going much better for Hitchcock. As he attempted to break down a barricaded door, a cadet pulled a pistol out, attempting to shoot him. Another cadet jostled him as he shot, sending the bullet harmlessly into the door jamb, but the encounter was enough to convince Hitchcock that he needed some backup.
Hitchcock found a cadet relief sentinel, and told him to "bring the 'com here." By "'com," Hitchcock meant Commandant of Cadets, but rumors quickly spread throughout the barrack that Hitchcock was summoning the "bombardiers," the cadets' nickname for regular artillery men also stationed at West Point. The cadets hated the artillery men, and they viewed Hitchcock's summoning of them as an affront to their integrity. Cadets in the North Barracks began taking up arms in an attempt to defend the building from the artillery men. Violence within the barracks escalated, as cadets smashed crockery and windows and broke furniture.
The artillery men, of course, never came, and slowly but surely, the drunken mob began to sober up. Eventually, Commandant of Cadets William Worth arrived on the scene. His authority was enough to put the Eggnog Riot to rest for good.
The cadets' night of drunken holiday chaos didn't end Christmas morning, however. Out of around 260 cadets, as many as 90 could have been indicted from the night's events. Instead of indicting all of them, which would have reflected poorly on the academy by reenforcing its image of an anarchic place, Thayer chose to deal with only the most aggressive offenders, expelling 19 cadets. Jefferson Davis managed to escape the evening unscathed, as did his future general Robert E. Lee, who was also a student at West Point during the riot.
None of the buildings from the Eggnog riot remain on West Point's present day campus, but the riots did have a lasting impact on the campus' architecture. In the 1840s, when new barracks were built, they included short hallways that required cadets to go exit the building entirely in order to access another floor. (Only one of these barracks is still standing.)
"When they built those, they put in a measure of crowd control," Fleek says. "It would make it more difficult for [cadets] to get out of hand and gather in large number."
West Point no longer has a grand holiday celebration, and where there are parties, access to alcohol is extremely limited, so the odds of rowdy cadets drinking too much of the good stuff remains the stuff of legend.