Eggnog is one of those things you either love or hate. Whatever opinions West Point Military Academy officials had about eggnog before Christmas 1826 is unknown. After Christmas 1826, officials at one of the country’s most prestigious and disciplined military academy came to loathe the holiday drink. After all, a riot fueled by eggnog destroyed the North Barracks and left the school in disarray in an event known as the Eggnog Riot of 1826.
In 1817, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer became the superintendent of West Point. His time as superintendent brought about strict discipline and order. Before him, West Point was still quite young (established in 1802) and quite undisciplined. Known as the “Father of the Military Academy” Thayer created the curriculum – parts of which are still in use today – and set strict disciplinary standards, course objectives of academic study, and emphasized honorable conduct. So, with that said, how did an eggnog-induced riot break out in the first place?
Early in 1826, Thayer expressly outlawed the purchase, storage, or consumption of alcohol at the military academy. The cadets were unhappy as drinking played a significant part of the campus culture and it was an annual tradition to drink eggnog at the cadets’ holiday festivities. The alcohol rules did not stop a number of students from preparing for the traditional festivities – festivities including alcohol. This also did not stop cadets from drinking at two taverns right outside school grounds, where clothing and shoes were exchangeable for liquor.
The holiday ‘fun’ began on December 22, 1826 when a few cadets went to a local tavern and purchased two gallons of whiskey to make homemade eggnog. They successfully smuggled the whiskey into a North Barracks room while another cadet smuggled a gallon of rum into another room. Business the next day went on as usual at West Point. Cadets also began preparing for the upcoming festivities by stealing some food from the mess hall.
The eggnog party started in the evening of December 24 in one of the North Barracks room by nine cadets. More cadets appeared as the party progressed, including Jefferson Davis (yes, that Jefferson Davis!). Early in the morning, a cadet smuggled another gallon of whiskey into the room. By 4AM, the volume of the cadets grew loud enough for Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a faculty member in military tactics, to investigate one of the rooms. In the room, he found six cadets drunk from eggnog. After ordering two of them men back to their rooms, Hitchcock then confronted the residents of the room. He told them they were unlawfully assembled and will face punishment. Hitchcock then left the room.
The intoxicated residents were outraged by Hitchcock’s treatment. One by one, their rage spread. The professor went back to his room. Three times a person knocked on his door only to disappear once he opened it. The last time this happened, Hitchcock saw Davis making his way to another room where additional cadets were partying. Before the rioting began, Davis famously screamed, “Hide the Grog boys – Old Hitch is coming!” after the Captain had already arrived on the scene. Davis was sent back to his room to pass out, thus avoiding the mayhem that followed. After giving out the Riot Act to a new set of cadets, Hitchcock left to find reinforcements to assist in breaking up the partying.
For the next two hours cadets, angry at “Hitch” for disrupting their celebrations, grabbed swords and pistols and roamed the grounds in search of the captain, assaulting two officers, demolishing furniture, breaking windows, firing at least one of their guns and stealing themselves a set of fife and drums in the process. At least seventy of the 260 students on campus were involved in the affair. Some of the notable cadets from this event include the following:
- Jefferson Davis: Involved but not charged
- Robert E. Lee (future Confederate general): Not involved but testified
- Benjamin G. Humphreys (future Confederate general and governor of Mississippi): Involved and expelled
- John Archibald Campbell (future Justice of the United States Supreme Court): Involved but not expelled
- Hugh W. Mercer (future Confederate general): Involved, expelled, and remitted
Proceedings into the riot began on December 26, 1826. After almost a month of inquiries, the decision was made to court-martial nineteen cadets and one soldier for their conduct on Christmas Eve. By March 8, eleven cadets were dismissed from West Point while the other eight cadets were remitted from dismissal, and all but three remained at West Point. By far, the Eggnog Riot of 1826 was some of the most chaotic hours in West Point history.
Funck, Carol S. “The Eggnog Riot,” U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, December 22, 2010.
Geiling, Natasha. “Egg Nog: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Starts a Holiday Riot,” Smithsonian, December 19, 2013.
Legro, Michelle. “The Eggnog Riot: Jefferson Davis throws a holiday rager,” Lapham’s Quarterly, December 24, 2012.
“Eggnog Riot,” Stuff You Missed in History, December 24, 2014. (Podcast)