Why you should care
Because eggnog, alcohol and firearms are a potent combination, even at disciplined institutions.
It’s not every day that “eggnog” and “riot” appear in the same sentence. But what about a sentence containing eggnog, riot, Christmas, West Point and future Confederate president Jefferson Davis? Seems hard to imagine. But take all of those, add 4 gallons of whiskey, sprinkle on some grated nutmeg and you end up with a holiday concoction known as the Eggnog Riot of 1826, one of the most bizarre episodes, and sentences, in American history.
That’s right — on Christmas Eve 1826, a group of West Point cadets, including Davis, smuggled the liquor into an on-campus party, spiked the eggnog and sparked a riot that spread across the nation’s foremost military academy. It was like Animal House with bayonets and pistols — a drunken night of holiday mirth and violence like none other in the academy’s long history.
Col. Sylvanus Thayer was the sort of stock disciplinarian you would expect to find in a campus rebellion movie. The strict superintendent, known as “the Father of West Point,” had been brought to the academy to instill in it a sense of discipline that had been lacking in its early years. Cadets were fed a steady diet of government beef, bread and water, and Thayer laid down some strict rules: no leaving campus without permission, no cooking in the dorms, no dueling and no drinking.
By morning, the revelers had smashed windows, broken furniture and torn banisters from stairways.
Still, up until 1825, the year before the riot, alcohol was allowed on campus twice a year — the Fourth of July and Christmas. That all ended when one drunken Independence Day party found cadets hoisting a commandant on their shoulders and doing a “snake dance.” From that point forward, Thayer ordered that any cadet found with alcohol would be expelled or arrested. It was not a popular decision.
So when December 1826 rolled around, several bold cadets decided to take a chance and throw a Christmas party in which the traditional eggnog remained traditionally spiked. One of those party planners was Davis. (His future general Robert E. Lee was also a cadet at the time but did not take part in the riot.) In the days leading up to the party, the 18-year-old Davis and his gang procured eggs, milk and nutmeg for the nog and smuggled in the whiskey.
Like so many college parties, this one started quietly, with nine young men drinking in a dorm room. Gradually, as James B. Agnew chronicles in his book Eggnog Riot: The Christmas Mutiny at West Point, it spread down the hall to other rooms. By four o’clock Christmas morning, it grew so loud that Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a faculty member who lived on campus, went to investigate the commotion. When the drunken Davis learned that “Hitch” was on his way, he stormed into the dorm room to warn the others. “Put away the grog, boys, Old Hitch is coming!” he hollered, only to find Hitch standing right there.
Hitchcock ordered the inebriated cadets to return to their rooms. Some did, including Davis (thereby saving himself from later punishment). But others did not; some even pledged later to pick up arms and hunt down the party-spoiling captain. “Before this night is over,” one shouted, “Hitchcock will be dead!” And, sure enough, before the end of the night, Hitchcock did have a pistol pulled on him. Another faculty member was assaulted by cadets wielding a block of wood. The mayhem spread across the academy’s North Barracks, with up to 90 cadets taking part. By morning, the revelers had smashed windows, broken furniture and torn banisters from stairways.
In the aftermath, 23 cadets were arrested, and 19 expelled. Remember, says West Point’s command historian Sherman Fleek, “This is the Army. This is 1826. You don’t shoot a pistol at an officer and get away with it.” West Point also took architectural precautions to help prevent future riots by demolishing the barracks and their long corridors and replacing them with buildings with fewer rooms on each floor. “What we learned from the eggnog riot,” says Fleek, “was crowd control.”
And, sure enough, West Point has never had a repeat of the Christmas chaos. The biggest incident, says Fleek, was a massive food fight in the mess hall in 1971, in which cadets were allowed to get it out of their system and then handed shovels and trash bags to clean up. And, according to Fleek, few cadets today have even heard of the infamous Eggnog Riot of 1826.