That time West Point cadets rioted over eggnog

Michelle Dolge
December 05, 2019 - 2:21 pm
Close up of homemade traditional Christmas eggnog drinks in the glasses - stock photo

photo credit: Getty/Kritchanut

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The West Point cadets wanted to celebrate Christmas Eve 1826 as they always had: with eggnog.

And whiskey.

But Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, the strict superintendent known as "The Father of West Point," did not approve.  Thayer had been brought in nine years earlier to bring order to the United States Military Academy, which was a mess.  The academic standards were subpar, admissions were lax, and there were barely any students.  But by 1826, Thayer had 260 cadets and a well-run machine.

Alcohol was forbidden, and cadets weren't even allowed off-campus.

That didn't matter to the young men who craved a party fueled by their favorite holiday beverage.

Eggnog, in the 1700 and 1800's, was a boozy punch with plenty of rum or whiskey.  In fact, President George Washington is known for his famous eggnog recipe that calls for brandy, whiskey, rum AND sherry.

George Washington's Famous Eggnog Recipe

Thayer was so convinced the cadets would party, according to Smithsonian Magazine, he assigned two officers, Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Lieutenant William A. Thorton, to keep a watchful eye on the North Barracks.

A couple of cadets snuck out in the middle of the night several nights before Christmas, paying a boater to transport them across the Hudson River and back -- where they could buy cheap whiskey from Martins Tavern.  They came back with 3 to 4 gallons to mix with the eggs, cream and nutmeg, creating that magical holiday elixer, eggnog.   They hid it away.

Everything seemed fine at midnight on Christmas Eve, so Hitchcock and Thornton went to sleep.

But at 4am,  Hitchcock awoke to the sound of a party above him.  There, he found six or seven drunk cadets, whom he ordered back to their own rooms.  But before he could make it down the hall, he found another party.  In there, three more drunk cadets.  As Hitchcock argued with the cadets, demanding their identities, others appeared, angry at the officer, with one of them shouting, "Get your dirks and bayonets...and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!"

Hitchcock ran upstairs, where he found a larger and rowdier party.

As Hitchcock entered the party, Jefferson Davis -- yes, the future president of the Confederacy -- ran into the room, yelling "Put away the grog boys! Captain Hitchcock's coming!" Poor timing, cadet.  Hitchcock was already there.  Jefferson apparently had a history of poor behavior at West Point when alcohol was involved. 

Thornton, who by now was awake and trying to shut down other parties, was threatened by a cadet with a sword.  Another drunk cadet hit him with a piece of wood.

Hitchcock ordered a cadet relief sentinel to "bring the 'com here."  Hitchcock wanted the Commandant of Cadets, but someone heard wrong (remember, they were drunk), and thought he called for the "bombardiers," the cadets' nickname for artillerymen. The cadets hated the artillerymen, and a mob mentality ensued.  Drunk cadets took up arms to defend their barracks.  Windows were smashed, furniture was broken, plates were thrown.

The artillerymen never showed up, but the Commandant of Cadets William Worth did.  It was just enough to kill the party.  And the riot.

Although as many as 90 were involved in the riot, it would have been devastating to the academy to charge all of them, so Thayer decided to concentrate on the most disobedient, according to The History Channel.

Jefferson Davis was put under house arrest the day after Christmas, but he was not charged eventually, nor was Robert E. Lee, who was also a student at West Point at the same time but did not participate in the riot. After several weeks of investigations, 19 cadets were eventually expelled in court-martials.

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