The great 'Eggnog Riot' of 1826 changed West Point's culture
By JOHNATHAN CROYLE | Syracuse Media Group, N.Y. | Published: December 17, 2018
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — As he settled into bed late on Christmas Eve night, 1826, Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock hoped the quiet would continue.
His watch said it was approaching midnight and, so far, all was calm.
The night before, the Superintendent of West Point, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, had assigned Hitchcock and Lieutenant William Thorton, to keep a sharp eye on the United States Military Academy cadets in the North Barracks.
Thayer warned Hitchcock that the cadets might attempt to throw their traditional Christmas drinking party overnight, an event that the authoritarian Thayer had put an end to earlier that year.
Hitchcock slept soundly for four hours until he was awaken by the sounds of rowdy boys celebrating on the floors above him.
The great Eggnog Riot of 1826 was about to begin.
The event would lead to the largest ever mass expulsion in West Point history and change forever the Academy's culture and even its architecture. And it very nearly changed forever the fortunes of one of America's most important 19th century figures.
In 1826, the Military Academy at West Point was just over 24 years old. It had come a long way.
When it first opened its doors, 10 cadets were trained by three teachers in a couple of dilapidated buildings. Students could be admitted at any point and admission standards were a joke.
Following the War of 1812, Congress saw the failings of the American military and decided to upgrade the academy.
In 1817, to lead the school through its changes, President James Monroe chose Colonel Sylvanus Thayer to be the new superintendent at West Point.
He brought order to the chaos and transformed the academy into an elite institution. He established admission standards, applied military discipline, created a student-enforced honor system and developed a rigorous curriculum, focused on engineering.
He also brought a strict code of conduct. He prohibited cadets from leaving campus, card playing, using tobacco, cooking in their dorms and even reading novels. Cadets were fed a strict diet of beef, bread and water.
For all these things, Thayer is known as the "Father of West Point."
In a small act of leniency, he still allowed the drinking of alcohol by cadets on the Fourth of July and Christmas, where eggnog was traditionally served.
But that came to a halt after a rowdy celebration on July 4, 1825, which included a "snake dance" and then the hoisting of West Point's commandant, William Worth, onto the shoulders of the cadets.
In early 1826, Thayer banned all possession of "any spiritous or intoxicating liquor." Any offenders would be arrested and expelled.
Cadets were furious. It meant that the year's biggest party, the celebration of the nation's 50th birthday on July 4, 1826, would be dry.
They vowed that they would still have their traditional Christmas celebration and began plotting a way to get liquor onto campus and into their homemade eggnog.
Thayer's alcohol ban did not extend past the walls of the school and there just so happened to be two taverns, the North Tavern and the infamous Benny Haven's, just outside the academy's walls and another, Martin's Tavern, a short boat ride down the Hudson River.
(Edgar Allan Poe spent nearly his entire one-year West Point career at Benny Haven's before he was dismissed, calling Havens "the sole congenial soul in the entire God-forsaken place.")
The taverns were technically off limits to the cadets but that did not stop many from risking arrest for some drinks. The men would barter shoes and blankets for the liquor.
A group of cadets planned to smuggle in liquor from these establishments for their holiday party.
One of the first to volunteer, Jefferson Davis, class of 1828, was already something of an expert at disobeying academy rules to get a drink.
The future President of the Confederate States of America was the first student ever arrested for visiting Benny Havens. A court martial found him guilty, but he was saved from expulsion due to his previous good behavior. In August 1826, he had somehow survived a fall down a 60-foot ravine while hurrying back to campus from Haven's after hearing an officer was on route.
Benny Haven's proved to be too expensive for the cadets, they only purchased a bit of mutton for the party there.
Instead, a few nights before Christmas, three cadets floated down the Hudson in a small boat toward Martin's Tavern and, after having a few glasses themselves, ordered three to four gallons of whiskey to go before returning to campus. After bribing an enlisted soldier standing guard at the gate 35 cents to look the other way, they brought the liquor back to their quarters and hid it away among their personal possessions.
At midnight on Christmas morning, the party began.
It started small at first, nine cadets in a single room, before increasing in size and spreading to more rooms in the North Barracks.
The noise also increased. By 2 a.m. singing could be heard with Jefferson Davis' voice carrying above the rest.
The noise woke Captain Hitchcock up and he wandered the halls looking to "ascertain if there was any disorder in the barrack."
It did not take him long to find some.
He found seven visibly drunk cadets in one room and told them to disperse.
He found thirteen drinking inside another room.
In a scene right out of a college comedy movie, Jefferson Davis, with the world's worst timing, burst into the room and shouted to his classmates, "Put away the grog boys, Old Hitch is coming!"
Hitchcock, of course, was already standing there and ordered the drunk future president to his room. Davis compiled.
Things turned from comical to serious when Hitchcock broke up another large party in another room.
When he entered, he found two cadets hiding under a blanket and another using his hat as a mask, refusing to show his face. As Hitchcock pressed the man to show his face, angry words were exchanged and he read the cadets the Riot Act, calling their assembly to be unlawful.
After Hitchcock departed, the cadets began to turn hostile:
"Get your dirks and bayonets...and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over Hitchcock will be dead!"
Cadets started throwing sticks against Hitchcock's door and threw rocks through his window. Dozens of cadets ran through the hallways of the barracks with muskets, swords and bayonets.
Lieutenant William Thorton arrived at the scene but was threatened with a cadet armed with a sword as he attempted to break up a gathering. Thorton was later knocked down by a cadet armed with a piece of wood.
When Hitchcock attempted to break down a barricaded door a cadet pulled a pistol and pulled the trigger. Thankfully, another cadet jostled him, and the bullet was fired harmlessly into a door jamb.
Hitchcock realized he needed help and told a sentinel to "bring the 'com here," meaning Commandant William Worth. But the rumor was spread that Hitchcock had asked for the "bombardiers," a unit of regular artillery men, despised by the cadets.
The cadets prepared to defend the barracks and started to destroy everything they could. Dishes were smashed, furniture and windows were broken, and bannisters were ripped from the stairways.
Commandant Worth arrived on the scene and began to impose order. The Eggnog Riot was over.
When the cadets gathered after reveille shortly after six a.m. on Christmas morning, they were not a pretty sight.
"Cadets stumbled from their barracks clothes torn or a strew," Smithsonian Magazine wrote in 2013, "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."
Superintendent Thayer had a mess on his hands. At least 90 of the Academy's 260 students had participated in the riot. By the letter of the law, they all should have all been arrested and charged.
But Thayer did not want West Point's image to suffer and the United States' Army badly needed trained officers.
He would charge only 19 of the most aggressive offenders. All of them were expelled.
Jefferson Davis again avoided the worst of the charges, probably because he followed Captain Hitchcock's orders and remained in his room during the worst of the riot. (Probably because he passed out.) It might have saved his career. He graduated from West Point in 1828, became a hero in the Mexican War, served as Secretary of War and was elected to the U.S. Senate from Mississippi. How would history have changed if Davis had disobeyed orders? He may have never been elected President of the Confederacy.
In the 1840s, West Point built new barracks, but with the Eggnog Riot still fresh in the memory, the new buildings were constructed with short hallways that required a cadet to leave the building in order to access another floor.
"When they built those, they put in a measure of crowd control," West Point's command historian Sherman Fleek told Smithsonian Magazine. "It would make it more difficult for cadets to get out of hand and gather in large numbers."
The cadets' rowdy holiday parties are also a thing of the past. If West Point does have any celebrations, alcohol is available in extremely limited quantities.
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