The Eggnog Riot at West Point

The illegal parties started in Rooms No. 28 and No. 5 in the West Point Barracks on Christmas Eve 1826. That year the 260 cadets had been told their holiday beverages should not be spiked with alcohol, the leadership’s latest effort to reduce drunkenness and disorderly behavior in the barracks. However, in the days leading up to Christmas Eve, several rebel cadets had been buying jugs and smuggling them into the barracks. At least two and a half gallons of whiskey and a gallon of rum had been obtained from local taverns and snuck past the guards while other cadets stole food from the mess hall.

Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer hosted a Christmas party at his home for the faculty and the West Point band serenaded the gathering. Over a glass of wine, the commandant of cadets puzzled about what to do regarding a certain, mischievous cadet from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis. If the esteemed officers and instructors had any idea what Cadet Davis was ringleading that night, they would not have been as cheerful and jolly. As the party ended at Thayer’s house, a full scale rebellion simmered in the North Barracks of the military academy.

The first party started in North Barrack’s room No. 28. The hosting cadets made eggnog with a heavy combination of their strong liquor and various other cadets rotated through the room, taking a sip or a glass. About the same time, room No. 5 (also in the North Barracks) started opening its door to the inquiring knocks; there Cadet Davis and six other ringleaders played host. In the early morning hours of Christmas morning, a cadet snuck out to one of the taverns and hauled back another gallon of whiskey.

By 2 a.m. Cadet Davis led a round of holiday singing in room No. 5, prompting a cadet division superintendent to visit. A verbal altercation occurred, but the patrolling cadet departed.

About two hours later, room No. 28’s noise increased to a level that it woke Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a faculty member who resided in the barracks to keep order. Hitchcock and the night guard had already worried about smuggled alcohol, but they had not expected full parties to occur. Annoyed at the rulebreakers, Hitchcock went up to No. 28 where he discovered two cadets passed out on the bed and six others heavily intoxicated. He ordered them all back to their rooms and briefly lectured Cadet James W.M. Berrien about possessing alcohol in the barracks. Within fifteen minutes, Hitchcock left the room, believing he had broken up the party. Instead, he had fueled a drunken revolt.

As the door closed behind Hitchcock, the angry cadets started planning a riot to show that officer exactly what they thought of his rules and meddling. They started with prank knocking on the captain’s door. Once as he opened his door to investigate, Hitchcock spied Cadet Davis slinking toward room No. 5. Unaware of the happenings in that room, the captain headed over to investigate. Inside the cadets refused to open the trunk where they had hidden their liquor. Suspicious, Hitchcock ordered them to cease their disorderly conduct and headed out in search of reinforcements. Cadet Davis curled up and fell asleep sometime shortly after Hitchcock’s visit, little dreaming of the trouble his party would cause.

Lieutenant William A. Thornton had slept through much of the night, but by the time Hitchcock started looking for him, Thornton was under attack. Awakened by shouting outside his room, the lieutenant went out to investigate. Two cadets purposely attacked him. Thornton arrest one immediately for brandishing a weapon, but the other cadet escaped and told his cronies what the officer had done. About the same time, Thornton noted new sounds coming from the South Barracks. There, cadets that Hitchcock had ejected from the party in room No. 28 attacked Thornton and knocked him out.

Hitchcock had no idea that his back-up officer lay in a dark corridor or that a group of cadets had started hunting for him. The sound of breaking windowpanes punctuated the darkness, and he kept finding staggering cadets. Retreating to his room to ponder the situation in safety, Hitchcock had little time. A group of cadets pounded on his door and one fired a pistol into the room. Flinging open the door, the captain started shouting orders and placing cadets under arrest.

Realizing the situation had escalated beyond his control, Hitchcock sent his dutiful cadet guards to find the commandant and bring back up to restore order. Drunken cadets overhead the order and spread the word through the barracks that bombardiers were coming to stop the riot with the use of heavy weapons. Upon hearing this, some sober cadets woke up and decided to join the revolt to protect their barracks.

By 6a.m. on Christmas morning, a mini civil war had erupted in the barracks as rule-abiding cadets appeared and joined the cadet guards to restore order and the inebriated cadets continued their defiance. Lieutenant Thornton regained consciousness and crept back to his room where Hitchcock found him. Major Worth, the Commandant of Cadets, arrived on the scene, and Superintendent Thayer was waking up to the realization that all was not calm and bright on this Christmas Day.

Five minutes past six o’clock, reveille echoed at West Point—sounding over the cracks of breaking glass, occasional gunshots, shouts of profanity, and rumbling threats against the officers and cadet guards. The cadets who appeared at the morning formation displayed a variety of reactions. Most from the South Barracks had slept well and looked trim and orderly. The sober ones from North Barracks had looks of horror at the destruction and noise they had witnessed but not participated in creating. A few cadets reeled their way to the formation and struggled to stand upright while a number simply never appeared, either passed out or defiantly continuing to sing, drink, or stalk the halls looking for authority figures to fight.

Superintendent Thayer wasted no time, ordering officers into the barracks to restore order. The company rolls were called, and the mutiny officially ended by breakfast time. Lists of damages followed, along the with lengthy list of cadets who had participated. Thayer told a visitor that he felt perplexed about how to handle the situation.

Nearly one-third of the cadet body had been involved at some level. Some gangs of cadets had actually tried to kill their officers and assaulted regular army troops who came to restore order. The incidents went beyond a little drinking party in violation of the rules and had turned into a revolt and mutiny which had serious implications.

In January 1827, Thayer convened a Board of Inquiry which established the facts and confirmed the involvement of one-third of the cadets. Cadet Robert E. Lee testified in some of the proceedings. Court-martials followed and nineteen were sentenced for dismissal. The proceedings showed the academy, the military, and the nation that family rank or privilege would not save a cadet from disciplinary action and also transformed some of the barracks’ administration at West Point.

As for Cadet Jefferson Davis, he sat under room-arrest for a while, made it through the Board of Inquiry, and did not face court-martial. He graduated in 1828 and eventually served as Secretary of War in the 1850s before becoming President of the Confederacy.

Happy Christmas Eve! Enjoy the eggnog in moderation and don’t lead any revolts.

Sources:

Much of the information about the Eggnog Riot is recorded in the paperwork from the official board of inquiry.

James B. Agnew, Eggnog Riot: The Christmas Mutiny at West Point, (San Rafael: Presido Press, 1979).

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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6 Responses to The Eggnog Riot at West Point

  1. Janet Chase says:

    …..and here I always assumed Jeff Davis was a serious, sober, boring man. Who knew??

  2. Lyle Smith says:

    Future Confederate General Benjamin Humphrey was one of the rioting cadets who was kicked out. Davis wasn’t dismissed because although he may have been a ringleader in the Christmas merriment, he did not participate in the actual riot. Passing out early saved his butt, I guess.

    • So the lesson is actually drink heavily early, pass out and miss the real stupidity.

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      This is an excellent article that details the events of a formative episode in the life of Jefferson Davis. And be it known that the term of four years as cadet at West Point was extremely important to the development of Jefferson Davis, the man. During his tenure, Davis was likely exposed to a treatise written by a foremost lawyer and Constitution expert of the day, William Rawle, who included a “thought exercise” in his 1825 work that seemed to imply that “secession was a potential right of citizens of States” (and also included the responsibilities of Federal officers caught up in such a circumstance.) Davis also used his time at West Point to cultivate life-long friendships: Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston are two notables. And as regards the Eggnog Riot… It is my understanding that Cadet Davis was charged with a specific infraction that was technically incorrect; and he successfully argued in his own defense that he COULD NOT be found guilty of the specification charged, therefore he was NOT Guilty. Later, Jefferson Davis was acknowledged as possessing an encyclopedic grasp of the U.S. Constitution, and was able to argue fine points in the U.S. Senate that many of his piers missed. A worthwhile reference: https://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/archives/documents/record-delinquencies-corps-cadets [Papers of Jefferson Davis at Rice University.]

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