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Ridiculous History: Here's Why West Point Cadets Rioted Over Eggnog in 1826


U.S. Military Academy superintendent Sylvanus Thayer and future Confederate leader Jefferson Davis were key players in the incident which saw military cadets riot over alcohol-free eggnog. Stock Montage/CSA-Archive/Getty Images
U.S. Military Academy superintendent Sylvanus Thayer and future Confederate leader Jefferson Davis were key players in the incident which saw military cadets riot over alcohol-free eggnog. Stock Montage/CSA-Archive/Getty Images

A student staggers back to his dorm after a late night tavern visit with friends, hoping to sneak in unnoticed. If caught, he'll be arrested on the spot — again.

But as he aims for campus, a massive ravine as deep as a five-story building materializes out of seemingly nowhere and he tumbles out of sight. His friends yell blindly into the darkness, urging him to answer if he's not dead. As luck — and booze — would have it, he doesn't really feel a thing.

It wasn't the first time Jefferson Davis — West Point class of 1828 graduate and future president of the Confederacy — had slipped away from his post at the military academy to get drunk, but it was the first time the plan nearly ended him.

Brandy and wine remained a European luxury, so Americans replaced it with the much more available, cheaper rum.
Cyrus Roepers, Historical Food Blogger

Not long after Davis's unplanned spelunking trip, talk turned to throwing an epic, eggnog-fueled Christmas Eve party, and naturally, he was all in.

Let the Eggnog Riot Begin

On Christmas Eve 1826, at least 70 cadets got rip-roarin' drunk on eggnog, assaulted two officers and nearly destroyed the North Barracks. They broke windows, threw furniture, shattered plates and even tore banisters from stairways. Their noisy antics drew the attention of officers assigned to guard against such shenanigans. A subsequent surprise inspection of student quarters revealed a "Where's Waldo" of drunk cadets. There were sloshed cadets poorly hidden under blankets and behind hats.

And in the hours that followed, the booze made them brave, so much so that they grabbed weapons and threatened to kill their superiors. One officer was threated with a sword and hit with a piece of wood; another was shot at.

Alcohol was strictly forbidden at West Point in the early 1820s. The military academy, stationed on the west bank of the Hudson River was, after all, run by Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, an austere and stern superintendent bent on instilling discipline. If a student were caught with alcohol, or simply under the influence of alcohol, expulsion and arrest weren't far behind. Plus, West Point, just 50 miles (80.5 kilmoeters) north of New York City, had its reputation to consider.

Maintaining Military Order

When West Point accepted its first class in 1802, a mere 10 students assembled in a handful of haphazard buildings. New students interested in joining the ranks were admitted — at any time throughout the year — with few questions. Then came the War of 1812, and Congress, hungry for military success, installed Thayer to whip the academy into shape.

By 1826, Thayer had done just as he was commanded.

Until Christmas Eve, that is. That's when students broke out their secret stash of liquor: about four gallons of the cheapest whiskey they could find. They'd lugged it across the Hudson River and bribed a guard to bring it onto campus, where they hid it among their personal effects. Imagine: whiskey in boots, coat pockets, under mattresses and blankets, until the moment it was hastily mixed with eggs, milk and a few spices to become eggnog — the Colonial equivalent of a Jaeger Bomb. (Watch the video below for an idea of what might've been in the mix.)

"There are a lot of different theories as to how eggnog came about, but there's a solid consensus that Medieval Europe played a large role in its creation," says Cyrus Roepers of Arousing Appetites, a food blog focused on recreating traditional recipes from cuisines all over the world. "Many believe that eggnog is an offshoot of an old drink called posset, which is hot milk curdled with wine or brandy, and some added spices."

Originally, says Roepers, posset was the preferred drink of the Old World's 1 percenters. But it didn't take long before this beverage of wealthy nobility became popular with the average person and hopped continents. As non-nobles in the New World began owning land and livestock, they started using readily available ingredients, like milk, eggs and liquor, to whip up their own grog.

"Brandy and wine remained a European luxury, however, so Americans replaced it with the much more available, cheaper rum, thanks to their Caribbean neighbors," says Roepers.

And, as West Point cadets discovered, whiskey was an acceptable substitute, too. 

AKA the Grog Mutiny

As the Christmas Eve 1826 eggnog riot stretched into Christmas morning, the revelry escalated. Students who weren't busy dismantling the barracks or fist-fighting, armed themselves with guns and swords in preparation for a battle with West Point's artillery men, who were expected to be summoned in an attempt to subdue them.

But then the eggnog's effects began to wear off. Morning roll call revealed a corps staggering to line up, with many of the 260 cadets somewhere along the eggnog continuum of well-oiled to full-on hangover.

Thayer elected to censure only the most destructive revelers, and neither Jefferson Davis nor his compatriot, the future general Robert E. Lee, were among them. In the end, 19 cadets were expelled.

No word on whether they ever drank eggnog again. 

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