Eggnog Riot: What Do You Do With a Drunken Cadet?



Today is the 189th anniversary of the Eggnog Riot, the aftermath of a drunken Christmas party at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Here are some things you may not have known about the riot.

In 1826, alcohol possession and intoxication were grounds for expulsion from West Point. Despite this, there was concern that drinking was out of hand among the cadets. Because of this, the eggnog at the planned Christmas party would be non-alcoholic. Following this news, a group of cadets decided to smuggle alcohol into the academy.

Eggnog, for those who don’t know, is a beverage made of milk or cream with sugar, raw eggs, spices like vanilla and nutmeg and, usually, some form of alcohol like rum or bourbon. Because of its high alcohol content, eggnog can be aged, sometimes up to a year, if refrigerated.

The cadets had decided to try to smuggle a half-gallon of whiskey into the academy. On December 22, three cadets convinced an enlisted security guard to let them use a boat to cross the Hudson River to retrieve the booze. They returned with two gallons, while another cadet managed to get another gallon from a tavern in town.

On December 23, the academy superintendent, Sylvanus Thayer, held a Christmas part at his residence. During the party, Thayer and the commandant of cadets, William J. Worth, had a discussion about the disciplinary issues of a cadet, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, the future president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Other cadets used the day to gather food and other supplies needed for the party.

The party began at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve as nine cadets gathered in a room in the North Barracks. A second party began in a nearby room, which included Jefferson Davis. At 2 a.m. Christmas morning, a cadet with some authority interrupted a group of eight cadets singing loudly. A faculty member named Ethan Allen Hitchcock woke up to a loud noise at 4 a.m. and found six drunken cadets and two others who had passed out. Hitchcock ordered the cadets back to their rooms. One cadet in particular, James “Weems” Berrien was particularly upset with Hitchcock and began planning revenge against him.

Hitchcock then proceeded to break up the other party and send its attendees back to bed. Another faculty member, Lt. William A. Thornton, arrested one cadet for brandishing a weapon. That cadet fled and told other cadets about his arrest. Hitchcock returned to his room, where a group of cadets attacked his door. One drew a pistol and fired into the room.

In the confusion, several drunken cadets thought Hitchcock had called in the bombardiers to quell the riot, which caused several cadets who weren’t drunk to join the rioters in what they believed was the defense of their barracks. At 6:05 a.m., Reveille sounded while the riot was still underway. Cadets assembled for roll call, some still drunk, others bruised and bleeding. The riot ended officially when the corps was called to attention.

At a meeting the next day, it was determined that the cadets would face an inquiry during their semester exams after the new year. The inquiry determined that 70 cadets were involved in the riot, and 22 cadets were placed under house arrest, including Jefferson Davis and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Archibald Campbell. Davis and Campbell were eventually released. 20 other cadets were court-martialed. Among those testifying at the court-martial was future Confederate General Robert E. Lee. All 20 were all found guilty. 11 cadets were expelled, while another resigned. The enlisted soldier who allowed the whiskey to be smuggled into the academy was sentenced to a month of hard labor and lost his whiskey ration for a month.

The damages totaled about $170, which is about $3,500 today.

Our question, what was the name of Robert E. Lee’s father, who was an officer in the American Revolution?

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