Thanksgiving 2022 saw U.S. troops around the world get the lightest shipment of eggnog in the previous five years. It's probably a good thing, considering the U.S. military's history with eggnog. It's also a good thing American troops today aren't drinking the kind of hard liquor-laden nog consumed by their forebears, because Christmas 1826 almost led to the ruin of an entire West Point class.
Few things divide families and friends more at Christmas than the much-beloved and equally reviled nectar of Saint Nick. The eggnog itself might not have been the direct cause of what's now known as "The Eggnog Riot," but it sure didn't help. It was made with the eggs, cream and sugar we enjoy today, but some recipes (like George Washington's) also included brandy, bourbon, rum, sherry and even whiskey.
Cadets at the military academy had a tradition of a raucous eggnog holiday celebration every year. The school's superintendent, Col. Sylvanus Thayer, banned alcohol on campus that year, but he usually made an exception for the Christmas party. Then, in spring 1826, he expanded the ban to include even that event, infuriating the cadets. When Christmastime rolled around, they were determined to continue the tradition.
Three cadets took a boat up the Hudson River a few days before the party and purchased three or four gallons of whiskey to bring back to campus. They bribed an enlisted guard 35 cents to allow them to smuggle the contraband hooch and hid it in their barracks rooms.
Believing that the cadets might misbehave, Thayer tasked Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Lt. William Thorton to watch over the Corps of Cadets on Christmas Eve, in case anything should go awry.
The party started at midnight. The nog hit the fan around 2 a.m. Christmas morning.
The cadets began singing loudly, waking Hitchcock and prompting him to have a look around. He found some of the drunken cadets almost immediately. The first group he stumbled upon was just gathering in a barracks room. He told them to go to bed, and they did.
When he found the next group, it was twice as large and, as he was dispersing them, one cadet, future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, renowned for his disciplinary problems, practically kicked the door open to warn his friends that Hitchcock was awake.
But it was the third group of cadets that started the real trouble.
Hitchcock literally read that group of 13 cadets the Riot Act, originally a British law that passed into U.S. law, that said authorities could declare any gathering of 12 or more people unlawful and order them to disperse. Instead of following orders, they threatened Hitchcock with the phrase, "Get your dirks and bayonets … and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!"
Some of the cadets did grab bayonets, along with muskets, swords, sticks and rocks, and began to roam the halls while assaulting the rooms of Hitchcock and Thornton. Thornton, soon roused by the commotion, tried to intervene in another gathering, but was knocked down by a cadet with a piece of wood.
Things came to a head when Hitchcock tried to break down a barricaded door and a cadet fired a pistol in response. The gunshot prompted Hitchcock to call in Commandant William Worth. The cadets misheard Hitchcock saying he was calling for the commandant, believing he was calling in an artillery unit called the "bombardiers."
Cadets reportedly hated the bombardiers, and the drunken rebels decided to reinforce their position and make a last stand. They destroyed much of the barracks in the effort to barricade windows and doors, including the windows and doors themselves. Then, the commandant arrived, and the whole riot stopped.
On Dec. 26, 1826, Thayer convened a board of inquiry that would release its findings and recommendations by the following March. Of the school's 260 cadets, 90 could have been indicted for actions in the riot. In the end, one soldier and 19 cadets were court-martialed for their role in the Eggnog Riot. Eleven of them were dismissed; of the other eight, three chose to leave West Point.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.
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