188 years ago this week: West Point torn apart by the Eggnog Riot

A painting believed to be of the 1826 event that went down in West Point lore as the Eggnog Riot.

A painting believed to be of the 1826 event that went down in West Point lore as the Eggnog Riot.

You wouldn’t know it by visiting the campus today, but in 1826, the United States Military Academy at West Point was the scene of an all-out holiday riot — over eggnog.

The U.S. Army of the time was much different from the force we know currently. Besides numbering just 6,000 regulars spread across coastal defense and frontier forts in the 24 states of the Union, a staple of the day was a regular alcohol ration for soldier and officer. This even extended to the Military Academy at West Point, that was, until 1817 when Colonel Sylvanus Thayer took over the facility.

Thayer banned the possession of booze but made an allowance for the regular Christmas eggnog, which, in a tradition that heralded back to the Revolutionary War, was liberally spiked with whiskey. However as the holiday approached in 1826, Thayer likewise ordered that the coming bash would feature unadulterated ‘nog sans the alcohol.

This didn’t sit too well with a number of the 260 cadets, many of whom would soon leave the following spring for hard service on the frontier and were eagerly awaiting the upcoming festivities. Several left campus and traveled to nearby taverns to obtain a few gallons of whiskey and at least one of rum, which they snuck back to the Academy with the help of an enlisted guard.

By Christmas Eve night, cadets were found wandering the grounds, singing, making merry, and sleeping in odd places. This degenerated into an ever-growing campaign that eventually involved as many as 90 cadets by morning to include Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and possibly Robert E. Lee, who went on respectively to become the only President of the Confederate States and future commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.

When regular Army officers assigned as instructors to the school attempted to restore order, they were met with resistance, broken windows, and even a few assaults on the more disliked of the school staff — one of whom was hit with a log. At least one fake reveille was sounded and cadets attempted to sign out a number of other musical instruments. A good bit swordplay also ensued, which, luckily, caused no fatalities.

When the smoke cleared, a large part of the barracks used by the cadets was in ruins and 19 students as well as the enlisted man who allowed the whiskey past his guard post in the first place were brought up on charges. In the end, 11 cadets were dismissed from the service for their part in the riot and the soldier was given one month at hard labor.

President John Quincy Adams later commuted many of the sentences passed by the courts marshal on Thayer’s recommendation. Those implicated but not punished included future U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Archibald Campbell and overall, the academy has distanced itself from the event over the past two centuries.

“Years have passed since the cadets overindulged on eggnog, but the moral of their story is still applicable,” wrote Carol S. Funck of the U. S. Army’s Heritage and Education Center’s page on the Eggnog Riot. “Too much of the ‘good stuff’ can lead to serious consequences. So remember this story as the holiday parties approach; let’s not let one night of fun alter our future as nineteen West Point cadets had.”

As for Thayer, he left the Academy in 1833 over a disagreement with President Andrew Jackson. Nevertheless, he returned for good after his death and is interned on campus where a statue has long been placed to remember the strict Colonel.

There is no word on if cadets from time to time leave eggnog for him.

Happy holidays.