The Eggnog Riot Happened, And Was Absurd

“Ain’t no party like a West Point party ‘cause a West Point party’s got drunks.”

~Jefferson Davis

eggnog riot

As long as there has been Christmas, there have been Christmas parties.  And as long as there have been Christmas parties, there have been Christmas parties where you wake up the next morning thinking ugh, what have I done?  But we can say with relative certainty that even your worst drunken office shenanigans paled in comparison to what happened at the United States military Academy in West Point on 1826 because, as much as you shouldn’t have made out with your office’s married secretary, at least you never had a Christmas party go so bad it caused a fucking mutinous riot.  Let’s talk history, people.

The Eggnog Riot Happened, And Was Absurd


West Point was first established in 1802, making it the oldest military academy in the United States as well as the oldest continuously-operating Army post in America, having first been occupied by the Continental Army in January of 1778.  It maintains a reputation for being where America’s great military minds train and receive their education, though its early years did not adhere to the strict requirements we assume from West Point today—at first, there was no standards for admission or length of study.  There were cadets as young as 10 and as old as 37 who attended terms ranging from six months to six years.  After the War of 1812, however, we decided we should probably make it a point to give our future generals an actual education, and in 1817, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer became the Superintendent, at which point he proceeded to establish the institute’s curriculum and disciplinary standards, essentially making West Point into what it is now today.

Thayer set up West Point as an engineering school to train the brightest and best that the Army could offer, and he was largely successful.  Known as “Father of the Military Academy” he oversaw classes that included Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and when the Mexican-American War offered the first glimpse in how West Point graduates would distinguish themselves in war, 452 of the 532 graduates who served in the war would receive battlefield promotions or awards for bravery.  However, turning West Point from a slapdash school with, at one point, only three teachers and ten cadets into a military educational powerhouse did not come without its fair share of growing pains.  Because by all accounts, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer was an extreme hardass.  And he did not allow his cadets to drink.  And, well, Americans don’t respond well when you take away their bottle.  And sometimes your natural response to such a situation would be to, understandably, sneak in lots of liquor for a Christmas party and then start a motherfucking riot.

colonal thayer

To be fair, it does take a lot of balls to riot against this guy

The West Point Christmas tradition revolved around cadets drinking eggnog, which at the time was synonymous with “heavily spiked eggnog.”  The rules at West Point dictated there could be no alcohol or inebriation on campus, though that did not apply to off-campus watering holes, which is why you had places like Benny Haven’s Tavern, where cadets could barter blankets and shoes for alcohol (though the bartering of West Point supplied materials was technically forbidden).  That is the tavern where Edgar Allen Poe spent most of his one and only year at West Point and where, earlier that year, future Confederate president Jefferson Davis was arrested for visiting.

1826 was one of the first year that the alcohol ban was to be enforced strictly, with non-alcoholic eggnog being provided for cadets, which to their ears would sound like someone trying to offer you a virgin Jack and Coke.  As a result, members of the North Barracks decided “fuck this shit, let’s party” and began sneaking out to procure alcohol for an epic rager.  Three cadets—William Burnley, Alexander Center, and Samuel Roberts, bought a bunch of whiskey, and paid off Private James Dougan, who was on duty as the security guard at the entrance to West Point, 35 cents to let them smuggle it in.   If you’re thinking that 35 cents was probably a pretty big bribe back then, you’d be wrong—it’s the equivalent of somewhere between five and ten bucks.  Maybe Dougan just saw some young Americans looking to party, and felt it was his duty to let it happen.  Or maybe he was just shitty at taking bribes.  Either way, they managed to smuggle in their whiskey, while other cadets through various means brought in whiskey, with one of the cadets storing the three or four gallons of whiskey with his private possessions.

whiskey cigar

“What?  I told you I had two items in my personal possessions locker.”

On duty at the North Barracks that night were Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Lieutenant William A. Thorton—the same officers who normally were assigned to monitor the barracks.  On the night of Christmas Eve, they both went to bed at around midnight, not hearing much in way of commotion.  Little did they know that not one, but two eggnog parties were being thrown—one featuring nine cadets, and another featuring seven—including Jefferson Davis.  They all proceeded to get shitfaced for the entire evening until, by around four in the morning, Hitchcock was awoken by the sounds of one the parties still going strong.  He crashed the party, finding six or seven wasted West Point cadets.  He ordered them to go back to their rooms and, when he went to leave, he heard another party happening in a nearby room, where he ran into three drunk cadets—two were hiding under a blanket, and the other was trying to cover his face with a hat, which pretty much sums up most college interactions between drunk underage students and their RAs.

This, however, is where tempers started to flare.  Hitchcock got mad that the one drunk with the hat over his face wouldn’t reveal his identity, and as he started exchanging angry words with the various cadets, tempers flared.  Once Hitchcock left that room to deal with other troublemakers, someone shouted, “Get your dirks and bayonets…and pistols if you have them.  Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead.”  This is a good point to take a step back from the “ha ha a riot over a drunken party” side of things, and point out that all of these drunk angry students did indeed have access to firearms.

drunk with guns

What could go wrong?

Things pretty much got out of hand at this point.  Thorton, who also had been awoken by the noise and went around trying to get students to disperse, put a cadet named William Fitzgerald under arrest for brandishing a weapon.  Fitzgerald left, telling other cadets about the arrest, further riling up tensions.  When Thorton went to investigate a different commotion, he was knocked unconscious with a chunk of wood by Samuel Roberts (who was one of the people who had been kicked out of the first party by Hitchcock, and who also was one of the cadets responsible for the whiskey) which, holy shit Roberts, a party’s a party, but you had to go and take things too far.  By this point, about one third of the entire campus was either drunk and rioting or sleeping off a night of heavy drinking.  By five in the morning, Hitchcock was still finding and rounding up drunk cadets wandering around the academy, only to find himself attacked once he returned to his room—several cadets rushed the door, with Walter Guion drawing a pistol and firing it into his room.  Hitchock did not like that, yelling at the cadets to stop, and arresting them (we’re pretty sure at this point “arresting” meant “writing down their name for future court-marshalling).

The last thing that sent a handful of cadets into a violent rage occured when they overheard Hitchcock asking to “fetch the com” referring to Commandant Worth, the head of the cadets.  What they heard instead, however, was “fetch the boms” leading them to think that the bombardiers (the regular artillery stationed at West Point) were being called to quell the riot violently.  Cadets began arming themselves, smashing windows, and breaking furniture, eventually causing the modern-day equivalent of about $3,500 in damages.

By six in the morning, the group of cadets still rioting were trying to recruit other cadets, who were nowhere near drunk enough to think that was a good idea.  Reveille sounded at 6:05, with gunfire, breaking glass, and general rioting tomfoolery going on in the background, though things were finally dying down.  Company roll call was at 6:20, and while the South Barracks cadets were relatively well rested, most of the North Barracks showed up still drunk or incredibly hungover.  The day went forward as Christmas Day at West Point usually did at the time, though a third of the campus was miserable throughout the whole process.

hungover at work

They had to run drills still drunk on no sleep.  Think about that next time you complain about being hungover from Happy Hour.

Order was eventually restored, but not before a lot of heads rolled.  The two men enlisted at the time who would go on to be the most famous ended up unscathed.  Robert E. Lee, who was a cadet, did not partake in the party because he might or might not have been no fun, and Jefferson Davis, who absolutely did partake, was running around shouting, “Put away the grog, boys!  Captain Hitchock’s coming” only to find that he was addressing Hitchcock directly.  When Hitchcock told him to get his drunk ass to his room and sleep it off, he obliged, saving him a court-martial.  Nineteen of the most aggressive offenders, including every single cadet listed by name in this article, did not escape that fate, and nineteen were expelled.  On top of the punishment given out to instigating students, Private Dougan, who let the whiskey get smuggled in, was sentenced to a month of hard labor and, somewhat fittingly, a month of forfeited whiskey rations.

And so that is how, for a crazy six hour period in the morning hours of Christmas of 1826, our nation managed to have an event known as both the Eggnog Riot and the Grog Mutiny, and your schoolteachers never bothered to tell you about it growing up.  America, you’ve got to get better with letting us know this kind of shit.  If you’d like us to take a stab at rewriting your history text books, we’d be open to the idea.  Until then, be thankful you’ve never partied so hard that you got expelled for shooting at a teacher.  Unless you’ve had that happen.  In which case, holy shit dude, we do not want to party with you.  That’s intense, man.  You’re crazy.

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