Remembering West Point’s Eggnog Riot of 1826
Today, the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York is thought to have one of the most disciplined student bodies in the nation. It may come as a surprise, then, that the school was once the site of one of the worst examples of eggnog-fueled debauchery in American history.
During West Point’s early years following its founding in 1802, it hardly resembled the highly revered institution that exists today. According to Smithsonian, admission standards were lax, and students could be enrolled at any point during the year. Drinking was also a significant part of the campus culture, especially around the holidays. It was an annual tradition at West Point for cadets to drink eggnog during their Christmas festivities, but in 1826, the school’s superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, cut them off.
As a means of whipping the community into shape, Thayer imposed a harsh new rule that prohibited the purchase, storage, and consumption of alcohol on West Point property. Unfortunately for Thayer, a few cadets took these new restrictions as a challenge come Christmas Eve.
The cadets (among them class of '28 student Jefferson Davis, a.k.a. the future president of the Confederacy) smuggled in three or four gallons of whiskey from a local tavern. Thayer suspected there might be shenanigans afoot for the holiday party, but he only took the normal precautions that night, assigning two officers to the North Barracks. The officers went to bed around midnight with no trouble to report, but that all changed around four in the morning. One of the officers, Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock, was awoken by the sounds of partying a few floors above him.
He went to investigate and found six or seven cadets in a drunken state. He ordered them back to their rooms, and as he went to leave, he heard a second party going on in the room next door. There he found two intoxicated cadets hiding beneath a blanket, and a third party who was so drunk he refused to remove the hat he was using to conceal his face. When Hitchcock demanded that he show himself, they argued, and things got so tense that after the officer left, the cadets declared, “Get your dirks and bayonets … and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!”
Soon after, the infamous West Point eggnog riot was underway. Anywhere from 70 to 90 cadets ended up taking part, and while no one was killed that night, the chaos did result in assaults on two officers, several shattered windows, and banisters being ripped away from stairways. By the time morning arrived, the North Barracks had been completely wrecked.
Instead of indicting up to a third of the academy’s 260 students and further reinforcing its reputation as an unruly institution, superintendent Thayer chose to only target the worst offenders. Jefferson Davis was able to evade a charge, and he, along with fellow classmates (including future Confederate General Robert E. Lee) testified in their peers’ defense. Nineteen cadets were eventually expelled, and the buildings that served as the site of the riot were demolished.
When new barracks were constructed in the 1840s, the school took special precautions that would make similar riots more difficult in the future. The buildings were constructed to include short hallways that forced students to exit the building entirely before reaching another floor, which would introduce an added element of crowd control in case it was ever needed. Today, the story of the West Point eggnog riot is largely unknown to its current students, the school's historian told Smithsonian. Their debased holiday parties are a thing of the past, and when the school does throw parties, any alcohol that’s present is available in limited quantities. Perhaps the administration doesn’t want their cadets getting any ideas from the academy’s rowdy history.
This article originally ran in 2016.