West Point has always had an exalted reputation for producing many of the greatest leaders in American history. The men who graduated from the academy in the first half of the 19th century became the best leaders of both sides in the American Civil War. Some of them also liked to party. The great eggnog riot of 1826 dragged a full third of the cadets into a drunken outburst that featured some very unexpected names.
Forced to settle for non-alcoholic eggnog
Eggnog was taken very seriously in those days, as was whiskey. George Washington’s personal recipe for eggnog included generous amounts of whiskey, rum, brandy, and sherry.
In the days leading up to Christmas in 1826, the cadets at West Point realized that they had a problem. Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, the superintendent whose reforms made West Point what it is today, had earlier that year banned alcohol.
Thayer was concerned about the amount of drinking going on in the dorms and explicitly prohibited the storage or consumption of alcohol at West Point, meaning that cadets would be forced to drink non-alcoholic eggnog on Christmas.
This was unacceptable for a number of cadets, who had no intention of letting Thayer and his ban ruin their Christmas party.
Benny Haven’s Tavern near West Point was a favorite of many candidates at the time. Only a few years after the riot Edgar Allen Poe’s exceptional love for getting drunk at Benny Haven’s would get him kicked out of the academy.
The tavern was also a favorite of Jefferson Davis, future Confederate president. Davis would go on to become a war hero in Mexico and a highly respected US Senator before leading the Confederacy. At West Point, however, he was a notorious partier.
Getting sloshed on Christmas
A few days before Christmas three cadets crossed the Hudson River to carry out the first step of their plan. Benny Haven’s had proven to be too expensive to supply the amount of whiskey they were hoping to procure so another tavern across the river was chosen as the alternative.
The cadets had planned to secure a half-gallon of whiskey but, having had a few glasses on the side, they returned with two gallons. An enlisted man on sentry duty was bribed to look the other way while the liquor was smuggled into the barracks.
Combined with whiskey and rum supplied by other cadets there was now plenty of alcohol at West Point to make some proper eggnog and word of the coming party quickly spread amongst the cadet population.
Colonel Thayer was strict but not naïve; he and the rest of the faculty knew that there would be some drinking on Christmas but they planned to deal with cases on an individual basis. They had no idea just how much alcoholic eggnog was being prepared.
Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock was assigned to keep an eye on the cadets in the North Barracks and woke up at around 4 A.M. to the unmistakable sound of a drunken party upstairs.
Hitchcock barged into the room from which the noise was emanating and found seven drunk cadets. Having sternly ordered them to disperse he assumed that he had sorted out the situation and turned to leave.
Hangovers and an anticlimactic ending
Just then, however, Hitchcock heard yet another party in the room next door. Two inebriated cadets tried to hide under blankets and a third threw a hat over his face, refusing to reveal his identity.
By now the commotion had drawn other drunk cadets to the scene and knives and pistols were starting to come out as the eggnog enthusiasts realized that Hitchcock was trying to ruin their fun.
On his way to break up another party, Hitchcock ran into a very drunk Jefferson Davis, who barged into the party room shouting “Put away the grog boys! Captain Hitchcock’s coming!” The warning didn’t do much for the cadets given that Captain Hitchcock was already standing right next to him.
The officer ordered Davis to go back to his room and the future Confederate President obeyed, sleeping off his eggnog oblivious to the mayhem outside and saving him from a potential expulsion. Other candidates were not as cooperative. Shots were fired and windows were smashed as they prepared to defend their barracks.
A rumor had gone around that Hitchcock was calling in troops to get the situation under control and the drunk, armed, and angry cadets barricaded themselves into the barracks, realizing as dawn approached and they began to sober up that no one invasion force was coming.
The somewhat embarrassed and very hungover cadets surrendered when Commandant of Cadets William Worth arrived. The mere presence of the lone commandant was more than enough to put down the riot.
Getting away with it (mostly)
Most of the cadets were probably saved by the sheer number of participants; Colonel Thayer couldn’t exactly purge West Point of a full third of its population.
Nineteen of the worst offenders were chosen for expulsion, their punishments being sent for approval to President John Quincy Adams.
The extent of the chaos meant that Thayer was afraid to punish any more. A mass expulsion would put the eggnog riot in the news nationwide and might ruin the reputation of the academy.
Jefferson Davis was not punished at all for his participation; history may have been very different had Davis not obeyed Hitchcock and gone back to sleep when he did.
Robert E. Lee was also a cadet at the time, though not directly involved in the rioting. Lee remains one of the most spotless and distinguished graduates in the history of West Point.
Of the others, a future Supreme Court justice was nearly expelled but was spared. A future Governor of Mississippi, a leader of the Texas Revolution, and another Confederate general were all expelled, though the eggnog riot seems to have not hindered their careers too much.