Did You Hear About the Eggnog Riot of 1826?

West Point cadets on a decidedly more orderly day, circa 1870. (Photo: USMA Bicentennial Website [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

Whether you love or hate eggnog, there's no arguing that it's a traditional holiday drink. Traditions are important, and when someone tries to prohibit a tradition, things can get ugly.

That's exactly what happened on Christmas 1826 when some cadets at the United States Military Academy, West Point, were denied whiskey in their holiday eggnog. The cadets would not be denied. They snuck in whiskey. They partied hard. They rioted. They mutinied. They were (most of them) court-martialed.

Here's how it all went down.

West Point rules

discipline bench
A bench at current day West Point reminds cadets that discipline is expected. (Photo: JillMatthews2/Shutterstock)

In 1826, the rules at West Point were similar to the rules at the conservative Christian college I attended: no card playing, no tobacco, no gambling and no booze. These rules were put in place by West Point's Col. Sylvanus Thayer, the superintendent of the academy, according to Smithsonian.

Before Thayer arrived at West Point, the academy had been unruly. The man known as "The Father of West Point" turned that around with his strict rules meant to instill discipline. Cadets weren't allowed to drink or have alcohol at the academy, but they were allowed to consume alcohol outside of West Point's grounds. Cadets caught drinking or intoxicated on the grounds were disciplined, and expulsion was one possible disciplinary measure.

None of this mattered to a group of cadets who couldn't imagine a Christmas without boozy eggnog. A mocktail simply would not do. Whiskey was procured — three or four gallons of it — and snuck into the barracks a few days before Christmas.

The consolidated timeline

Portrait of Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who earlier in life had tried to stop the Eggnog Riot at West Point. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [public domain])

There's a very detailed timeline of the events that took place in the late hours of Christmas Eve and the early hours of Christmas morning during what became known as the Eggnog Riot and sometimes referred to as the Grog Mutiny. The details came spilling out during the court-martials of 20 of the most egregious partiers.

We'll skip the play-by-play and hit the highlights.

At the time, West Point had North Barracks and South Barracks. The partying happened in the North Barracks. What started as some young men sitting around throwing back a few contraband eggnogs turned into something more when Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, one of two officers assigned to monitor the cadets overnight, woke at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning to the sound of revelry in the rooms above him. When he went to investigate, he found some drunk cadets, some of whom didn't take kindly to his order to end the party and go back to their rooms.

Words were exchanged. Drunken cadets became belligerent, and it's recorded that after Hitchcock left they yelled, "Get your dirks and bayonets ... and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!"

When Hitchcock went to explore a lower floor that had also gotten loud, he came across one drunken cadet, Jefferson Davis (that name should sound familiar if you studied U.S. history). Hitchcock sent Davis back to his room where he apparently stayed, but outside Davis' room, the riots had begun.

One cadet took a shot at Hitchcock, who was saved when another cadet jostled the shooter and the bullet missed. Hitchcock called in reinforcements. The drunken men believed Hitchcock was calling in artillery men (he wasn't), and they took up arms to defend themselves. They became violent, smashing windows and furniture in their drunken attempt to defend themselves against ... no one.

It took the arrival of William Worth, the commandant of cadets, along with some sobering up, to end the riots.

How this has never been made into a movie, I don't know. It's like "Stripes" meets "Taps," without the heart-wrenching scene of Sean Penn carrying a lifeless Timothy Hutton out of the barracks.

The aftermath

jefferson davis
Jefferson Davis is probably best known as president of the Confederate States. As a cadet at West Point, he was part of the intoxicated revelry that led to the Eggnog Riot. (Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of some movies like "Stripes," a story about unruly military men who just wanted to have some fun, viewers get to see how various characters' lives fared after the film's conclusion. Because of the details from the public domain nature of the court-martial records we can do the same for a few key characters in the riot story.

  • Jefferson Davis, the one drunk who went back to his room, wasn't charged. He probably wouldn't even be important to the story if not for the fact that he went on to graduate West Point in 1828 and become the president of the Confederate States of America in 1861 when the Southern states attempted to secede from the union.
  • Benjamin G. Humphreys was expelled from West Point, but that didn't stop him from going on to hold a high military position. He was a Confederate Army general, as well as the governor of Mississippi preceding the Civil War.
  • John Archibald Campbell wasn't expelled after his military hearing. He eventually became a Supreme Court justice, serving from 1853-1861.
  • Hugh W. Mercer was expelled, but his sentence was remitted. He went on to graduate from West Point and become a Confederate Army general.