It was Christmas in 1826 and the cadets at West Point Military Academy decided to spice up the season's celebrations. Pity about the wreckage, courts martial, and expulsions.
The Sweet Seduction of Eggnog
Also known as Milk Punch, eggnog is a concoction of egg yolks, milk, cream, and sugar that sounds innocent enough. In various formulations, it's been around for centuries.
In early medieval England it was called “posset,” that Merriam-Webster tells us is “a hot drink of sweetened and spiced milk curdled with ale or wine.” Sounds awesome, especially the curdled, chunky bits.
The presence of spices and sweeteners meant that, if you weren't a baron living in a castle, you were unlikely to taste this tipple because of its cost. That's possibly a good thing.
People lost their taste for posset/eggnog in Europe, but the colonists brought it with them to the New World. Those that were not of a strictly Puritan bent added whiskey or rum to the drink, and it eventually became associated with the Christmas season.
It was during the festive holidays of 1826 that a ruckus broke loose at the West Point Military Academy, fuelled by eggnog.
The origin of the word eggnog is a bit of a mystery. The egg part is simple because that's an ingredient. “Nog” may come from an abbreviation of the name given to wooden mugs called “noggins” in which alcoholic drinks were served.
A Booze-Free Christmas
In 1817, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer was appointed superintendent of West Point. He arrived at the college to find an institution that didn't take the studying of military matters very seriously. The place had a reputation of being party central for the cadets.
Thayer, who had an engineering background, set about straightening out the curriculum and the students. Any army that hoped to be effective had to have discipline and Thayer introduced this to West Point. He established a code of honour, the need for high academic standards, and hard-and-fast rules about physical and mental discipline. He even put a ban on duelling.
In 1826, he decided that the tradition of spiking Christmas eggnog with rum had to end. This did not go down well with the student body.
The Eggnog Riot
Disobeying the colonel's strict prohibition on liquor, foraging parties were sent out to seek the celebratory elixir; they returned with three gallons of whiskey and a gallon of rum. The hooch was smuggled into the North Barracks—let the revelry begin.
There were 260 cadets at the academy at the time and 70 decided to join the fun on Christmas Eve. So, there was enough grog for each cadet to have six shots; some had less, and some had more.
By early on the morning of Christmas Day, it was obvious a raucous gathering was taking place, so a Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock was sent to investigate. He read the Riot Act and was ignored by the cadets. One was heard to yell “Get your dirks and bayonets ... and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead.” Lethal stuff that eggnog.
With that, the riot was on, and cadets went about their mischief of smashing windows, ripping banisters from staircases, and breaking furniture and crockery. Another officer, a Captain Thornton was knocked unconscious by the drunken mob, then a pistol was fired.
That was the signal for the arrests to begin.
The Aftermath of the Eggnog Riot
Morning parade following reveille on Christmas Day was a sad affair. Natasha Geiling (Smithsonian Magazine) describes the scene: “Cadets stumbled from their barracks, clothes torn or [askew]. Many were barefoot, cursing, still drunk from the night before.”
Others were nursing hangovers while some must have been quaking in their boots at the prospect of retribution. Col. Thayer was not a forgive-and-forget type when it came to having his orders disregarded.
The courts martial started at the end of January 1827. Six cadets resigned rather than facing the embarrassing spectacle of being judged guilty of disobeying orders and taking part in a riot.
In all, 19 cadets were summoned to account for their actions at courts martial. All of them were pronounced guilty, with 11 being expelled. Minor punishments were handed out to 53 others.
Who knew that eggnog could be such a potent beverage?
- George Washington used to serve a rocket fuel version of eggnog involving whiskey, rum, and sherry.
- Two of the students at West Point at the time of the riot were Robert E. Lee who went on to command the forces of the Confederacy in the Civil War and Jefferson Davis who became the Confederacy's president. Lee did not imbibe but Davis was in the thick of the rampage. He escaped being court martialled by obeying Captain Hitchcock's orders to return to his room.
- John Archibald Campbell took part in the Christmas Eve shindig but avoided expulsion. In 1853, he was appointed as a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
- “What Is the History of Eggnog?” Tori Avey, PBS, December 17, 2014
- “The Eggnog Riots.” Justin & Stephanie Pollard, History Today, Volume 69 Issue 12 December 2019
- “The Eggnog Riot.” Carol S. Funck, U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center, December 22, 2010.
- “Eggnog: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Starts a Holiday Riot.” Natasha Geiling, Smithsonian Magazine, December 19, 2013
- “The Eggnog Riot.” Matthew Jarrett, forgottenhistory.me, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor