On December 25, 1826, the students of West Point Academy emerged from their barracks unable to muster much Christmas Day cheer. They walked slowly, shielding their eyes, and trying to mask their splitting hangovers as they attempted to stand at attention. The previous night hadn’t gone as planned, and there was only one thing to blame: that delectable Christmas drink, eggnog.
In the early decades of the 1800s, West Point was far from the elite military academy that we know today. The school opened in 1802 with 10 students, three teachers, and an open enrollment policy that meant students could come or go at any point in the year. Admission standards were practically nonexistent. Cadets ranged in age from 10 to 37 and attended anywhere between 6 months to 6 years. To say things were lax is an understatement.
All that changed after the War of 1812. The war got Congress thinking that having a well-trained military was probably a good idea. So, in 1817, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer became the school’s superintendent, replacing his former teacher who held the position, Alden Partridge, much to Partridge’s chagrin.
Thayer was determined to transform the ramshackle school into an elite military academy. To do this, he enacted disciplinary standards, banning card games and tobacco. Even novels got the boot. Alcohol was permitted, but only on Fourth of July and Christmas. That is, until July 4, 1825, when a group of students got drunk and did the “snake dance” carrying the school’s unwilling Commandant of Cadets, William Worth, on their shoulders. After that, Thayer banned all alcohol, even on holidays. Fair enough.
But the students of West Point weren’t going to give up their precious libations without a fight. They’d make their stand on Christmas Eve 1826, the night of the annual Christmas party. About 90 cadets, roughly a third of the school’s population, began to hatch a plan to smuggle four gallons of whiskey into the school.
One of those cadets was none other than Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy. Davis already had a bit of a reputation as a frat boy around school. He was the first student to be arrested for patronizing nearby tavern Benny Haven; once, Davis even got so wasted that he fell down a 60-foot ravine. Suffice it to say that when he got wind of Operation Holiday Merriment, Davis leapt right aboard.
Now, there was the problem of finding a tavern that sold its liquor cheap enough for the students to afford four gallons of whiskey. Several nights before Christmas, three cadets snuck out of the school and paddled across the Hudson River to procure the booze from a divey East bank tavern. After downing a few shots of the stuff (you know, to check the quality of the merchandise), the students snuck back across the river with the whiskey only to find a soldier standing guard on the docks. No worries; they ended up paying him 35 cents (about 10 bucks in today’s money) to look the other way as they unloaded their contraband. When they got back to the school, the whiskey was stowed away and hidden amongst the cadets’ belongings in various dorm rooms until go time.
Sylvanus Thayer wasn’t an idiot, and he knew there would likely be some students who’d try to imbibe on the holiday. He warned his staff to be vigilant, but other than that, he did little to prepare for the chaos that would come.
On Christmas Eve, there were two officers, Lieutenant William A. Thornton and Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock, standing guard at the North Barracks. By midnight, when Thornton and Hitchcock turned in, all was quiet. The cadets had timed their party well: only after the guards turned in did the booze come out. The students had mixed the whiskey into eggnog, a drink that was always boozy back in the 1800s. In fact, George Washington was fond of a recipe that mixed four different alcohols: brandy, sherry, rum, and some whiskey to top off the mixture of milk, egg, and cream.
By 4 a.m., the eggnog was flowing, and the boys had gotten rowdy enough that they managed to wake up Hitchcock from his slumbers several floors below. When a groggy Hitchcock went to investigate, he found nearly a dozen inebriated cadets. Two were hiding (badly) beneath some bedsheets. One used a hat as an impromptu mask, flat-out refusing to show his face. As Hitchcock got riled up by the drunken revelers, the cadets responded in kind, eventually prompting one hot-head to shout, “Get your dirks and bayonets...and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!” The riot had begun.
Amid his attempt to break up the gathering before him, Hitchcock then heard an even rowdier party happening downstairs. Just as Hitchcock burst onto the scene, a young Jefferson Davis also stormed in to warn his friends, “Put away the grog boys! Captain Hitchcock’s coming!” Unfortunately for Davis, Hitchcock was already there and ordered everyone to bed.
Lieutenant Thornton, too, was busy trying to break up various parties around the North Barracks at this point, and was having an equally tough go of things. One cadet threatened him with a sword. Another clobbered him with a piece of wood, knocking him to the ground. Meanwhile, Hitchcock was attempting to kick down a barricaded door when one cadet fired a shot at him. It missed, but still—this can’t be how he pictured his Christmas Day going. The boys broke windows, ran through the halls with bayonets, muskets, and swords, destroyed furniture, splintered banisters, and shattered dishes.
The arrival of Major William Worth (the same Worth of the snake dance) finally sobered the boys up. And a few hours later on Christmas morning, things were a right mess. Nearly a third of the students had been involved in the rioting, and Thayer feared that expelling 33% of the student body would only damage the school’s shoddy reputation further. Ultimately, the decision was made to press charges only against the most serious offenders: 19 students were court-martialed and 11 were expelled for throwing the Devil’s version of a Christmas party. If only they hadn’t spiked the nog.
West Point has had a strict approach to alcohol consumption ever since. Indeed, Sherman Fleek, West Point historian, says that of the nine thousand people that make up West Point’s student body and faculty, he’d be surprised if 30 people were familiar with the events of the infamous riot. Maybe that’s for the best, though—the story might just inspire 21st-century revelers to seek out some of that premium eggnog.