On the night before Christmas in 1826, Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock turned in shortly before midnight. Visions of sugar plums may not have been dancing in the head of the U.S. Military Academy faculty member, but dreams of a silent night likely were. Although the academy’s superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, had warned Hitchcock that the cadets inside his dormitory might attempt to throw their traditional Christmas drinking party overnight, all was quiet in West Point, New York, as Thayer drifted asleep snug in his bed inside the North Barracks.
Unbeknownst to Hitchcock, however, a party had already started. Cadets had been secretly smuggling liquor into their barracks for days as Christmas approached, a risky venture that could have resulted in their expulsions because for an Army man, Thayer ran a tight ship. Since the colonel took charge of the academy in 1817, his strict discipline had transformed it from a school in disarray into an elite institution. A West Point graduate himself, Thayer prohibited everything from playing cards to tobacco to even novels.
In a bit of leniency, “The Father of West Point” had allowed alcohol on the Fourth of July and Christmas. That changed, however, following a rowdy celebration on July 4, 1825, when cadets engaged in a “snake dance” and hoisted the school’s commandant, William Worth, on their shoulders and carried him back to their barracks.
Thayer’s outright ban on the possession of “any spirituous or intoxicating liquor” meant the biggest party of 1826—the celebration of the country’s 50th birthday on the Fourth of July—remained dry at West Point. Some of the cadets vowed, however, that the superintendent’s rigid alcohol policy would not prevent them from celebrating a Christmas tradition in which they imbibed the holiday spirit by adding some spirits to homemade eggnog. To prepare for their Yuletide drinking party, cadets snuck in gallons of whiskey, brandy, rum and wine they had procured from local grog shops. Three students even secreted across the Hudson River in a boat to buy whiskey from a tavern on the opposite bank.
Among the party animals was one teenage cadet, Jefferson Davis, who from the start of his tenure at West Point in 1824 had exhibited a fondness for booze and a rebellious streak that foreshadowed his later role as president of the Confederacy. During his first year at the Military Academy, Hitchcock had caught Davis at the notorious tavern run just off campus by Benny Havens, whom future cadet Edgar Allan Poe would call “the sole congenial soul in the entire God-forsaken place.” A court-martial found Davis guilty, but his prior good conduct saved him from expulsion. In August 1826, Davis endured a lengthy hospitalization after falling down a 60-foot ravine while hurrying back to campus from Havens’s tavern after hearing that a superior was en route.
The future Confederate president was among the first participants in the party, which swelled in size as the night grew longer. At 4 A.M., the noise pouring through the floorboards was so loud that it stirred Hitchcock from his sleep. He left his room and wandered the halls “to ascertain if there was any disorder in the barrack” and found 13 partying cadets in room number five.
Exhibiting the poorest of timings, a drunken Davis burst through the doorway to warn his friends, “Put away the grog, Captain Hitchcock is coming!” The captain, of course, was already there. Hitchcock arrested Davis, ordered him to his room and then read the cadets the Riot Act, which declared any group of 12 or more to be unlawfully assembled.
The cadets, however, decided to take wreak vengeance against the perceived party pooper. They threw sticks of wood against Hitchcock’s door and tossed rocks through his windows. Dozens of cadets ran through the halls with swords, muskets and bayonets. One fired a pistol as Hitchcock attempted to break down a door. Two superior officers were assaulted in the ensuing melee, which Davis missed because he was either passed out in his room or had the good sense not to leave it. The riotous behavior did not abate until Worth arrived.
When the reveille sounded at 6:05 A.M. on Christmas morning, the sober cadets who had rested well inside the South Barracks arose with military discipline. The North Barracks, however, exhibited quite a hangover. The disheveled dormitory sported broken windows, smashed furniture, banisters ripped from stairways and shattered plates, dishes and cups. The cadets who participated in what became known as the “Eggnog Riot” didn’t look much better as dawn broke.
Nearly one-third of the academy’s 260 cadets were involved in the free-for-all. Since expelling all of them would have been a crippling blow to the academy, still in its relative infancy, 22 of the cadets most deeply involved in the Eggnog Riot, including Davis, were placed under house arrest on the day after Christmas.
Following weeks of investigation, court-martial proceedings began on January 26, 1827, against 19 cadets and one soldier. Davis was spared, possibly for his immediate compliance with Hitchcock’s orders, and eventually released from house arrest after six weeks’ confinement. For more than a month, a tribunal of professors and soldiers heard testimony from 167 witnesses, including from cadet Robert E. Lee, who didn’t partake in any of the mischief but spoke in defense of some of his classmates.
The courts-martial lasted until mid-March. All 19 defendants were found guilty and sentenced to be dismissed. Eight, however, were saved by a recommendation of clemency, and five ended up graduating from West Point. Fifty-three cadets received lesser punishments.