The Egg Nog riot of 1826
These days egg nog is a fairly innocuous drink, the sort of thing you would give an elderly relative at Christmas, consisting of eggs, milk, cream, sugar and associated spices. It is and was particularly popular on the other side of the pond and in the late 18th and 19th centuries the Americans added alcohol to give the beverage an extra kick. George Washington’s recipe included rum, sherry, brandy and whiskey.
Opened in 1802 and revitalised after the military’s failings became apparent after the War of 1812, West Point was the main military academy for the American army. Colonel Sylvanus Thayer was the top dog and ruled the place with a rod of iron. One of the things he was particularly hot on was enforcing a ban on the consumption of alcohol. As the Christmas festivities of 1826 approached, he reiterated his prohibition on hooch.
Not unsurprisingly this did not go down well with the cadets who decided that they would not let Thayer spoil their Christmas festivities. Close to the academy were a number of establishments where alcohol could be purchased – Thayer’s ban didn’t extend beyond the boundaries of West Point – and three cadets crossed the Hudson river by boat to procure some three or four gallons of whiskey from Martin’s Tavern. They had an alarum when a guard spotted them but they slipped him 35 cents – an odd amount it has to be said – and he turned a blind eye. The hooch was stashed for the forthcoming party on Christmas Eve 1826.
During the early hours of the morning, the two officers deputed by Thayer to keep an eye on things, Thornton and Hitchcock, heard rowdy sounds and went to investigate. Hitchcock found a party in full swing with six or seven cadets visibly inebriated. On ordering the miscreants to go to bed Hitchcock stumbled on another party. The cadets there put up more of a resistance, with one shouting “Get your dirks and bayonets..and pistols if you have them. Before the night is over, Hitchcock will be dead”. Yet another and larger party was discovered and as Hitchcock entered the room one of the party, Jefferson Davis, a future president of the Confederacy, shouted, “put away the grog, boys. Captain Hitchcock’s coming”.
Things began to get out of hand. Thornton was knocked down by a cadet who hit him with a piece of wood and Hitchcock had a bullet fired at him. This convinced the latter that some reinforcements were needed and he called out, “bring the ‘com here”. This led to an unfortunate misunderstanding which merely exacerbated the situation. Hitchcock probably meant that the Commandant should be summoned the cadets took it to mean that the artillery were to be called into action. To defend themselves, they took up arms, smashed crockery and windows, ripped out banisters and broke items of furniture. The artillery never came and eventually the effects of the alcohol wore off and when William Worth, the Commandant, finally turned up his authority was enough to calm the situation down.
Some 90 of the 260 cadets were involved in the riot but Thayer, perhaps surprisingly, only chose to expel 19 of them, Jefferson Davis escaping the ignominy as did Robert E Lee – heard of him? The riot did have one lasting legacy. When the barracks were reconstructed in the 1840s it featured short hallways which meant that cadets had to leave the building to reach another floor, thus facilitating crowd control and restricting movement. And although alcohol can be consumed on the premises nowadays, it is only available in limited amounts.