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By Matthew Gault,War Is Boring
The United States Military Academy at West Point is synonymous with prestige. Its list of graduates includes two U.S. presidents, 40 astronauts and countless Rhodes Scholars and Medal of Honor recipients. For the past 150 years, West Point’s name has meant excellence, discipline and courage.
The name once meant debauchery, laziness and alcohol poisoning. For the first half of the 19th century, West Point was more Animal House than, well, West Point. That all changed when a new superintendent took control of the academy, modernized its practices and disciplined its cadets.
In return, the cadets got shit-can drunk on Christmas Eve and rioted.
The ensuing chaos destroyed one whole barracks. Dozens of inebriated students ran through the campus, threatening officers and puking all over the grounds. In the morning, the new superintendent rounded up a third of the worst cadets and expelled them.
It was a moment that defined the academy, the last outburst of public excess before West Point settled down and became the prestigious institution it is today. The Eggnog Riot was West Point’s last great bender.
When Sylvanus Thayer took over West Point in 1817, the military academy was a mess. A veteran of the War of 1812, he fretted over the U.S. military’s poor performance during the conflict—which Thayer blamed on the inadequate training methods of which America’s officers were exposed.
Prior to arriving at West Point, Thayer toured Europe’s top military academies. He grabbed as many books as he could carry, interviewed the continent’s superintendents and studied how they governed their schools. It was the French military—fresh from its campaigns under Napoleon—that most attracted Thayer and he planned to bring the French way of war and officer training methods back home to America.
Before Thayer, West Point had no fixed curriculum. Cadets came and went as they pleased, often living off the largesse of the U.S. government, and evenings became bacchanals as young, liquored-up students visited local taverns and wandered back to campus in the early morning hours.
The school was so lax that dozens of students had spent years dawdling during the first year’s worth of courses. Some had even left the school but remained enrolled, coming back only to receive their pay vouchers before returning to a “permanent vacation.”
When Thayer returned from Europe and took command of the school, he dismissed 43 such cadets. He then set about establishing a regular course load and enforcing the strict rules that would go on to become one of West Point’s hallmarks. Under his watch, duty, honor and courage began to mean something—and the academy became a meritocracy.
Col. Sylvanus Thayer, West Point superintendent, scourge of drunken cadets. Robert W. Weir illustration via the U.S. Military Academy
Thayer made it against the rules for cadets to earn a living or receive money from home. Everyone on campus would live on the $18 a month provided by the government. Rich students had a habit of lording it over the poor and Thayer put a stop to it. He also forced cadets to sign a pledge saying they’d serve out a year’s worth of their promised commission in exchange for their education.
Before the latter rule, students often resigned their commissions immediately upon graduation as a way of dodging service.
Thayer even ended annual vacations and forced the cadets to spend the summer camping in tents and practicing tactical drills. The lazy students dropped off like flies and discipline increased. Thayer’s quick progress thrilled his superiors in Washington.
Then he made a tactical error and prohibited alcohol. Young people and booze go together like chocolate and peanut butter—and the remaining cadets of West Point were displeased at the ban.
One of the academy’s most famous drunks was Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy. Davis was such a raging drunk that he once fell down a 60-foot ravine while walking home with his drinking buddies. After Thayer’s alcohol ban, Davis was the first to face charges that he’d abandoned his post for a quick drink at a local tavern.
It was not the first—nor the last—time Davis would leave his duties behind to get drunk.
A ‘Harper’s’ cartoon depicting Jefferson Davis drunk in a ditch. Illustration via ‘Harper’s Weekly,’ circa 1862
In late December 1826, a group of students decided to throw a rager on campus. Since it was Christmas, and given that they couldn’t go home for the holidays, they thought the best drink to mix for the occasion was eggnog. Though traditionally made these days with rum, West Point’s cadets weren’t picky about their poison.
Four different groups of students took off to secure the booze, with one even crossing the Hudson River in the dead of night to secure alcohol. All together, the men gathered a gallon of whiskey, a gallon of brandy and a gallon of wine. They bought some mutton, eggs, milk and nutmeg, concocted their beverage and began imbibing.
It started slow, around midnight on Christmas Eve, with four students in one dorm room pounding drinks. The party got rowdier, and when Davis arrived at around 4:00 a.m., things spiraled out of control.
Capt. Ethan Allan Hitchcock thundered up the stairs and Davis turned to his buddies and said, “Put away the grog boys, Old Hitch is coming.” But it was too late. Hitchcock arrested Davis and a few of the other drunks, and then literally read them the Riot Act. That was the moment the remaining students decided they weren’t going to put up with the faculty shutting down their party.
Well-lubricated and celebratory, the drunken cadets started a riot.
The Superintendent’s Quarters at West Point, built during Thayer’s tenure.
Davis, under arrest but too damn drunk to do anything about it, stumbled from the ensuing chaos, went to his room, vomited on the floor and passed out in his bed. He slept through most of the following carnage, waking only when a roommate loudly reloaded a pistol in the room.
The drunks swept through the halls of West Point’s North Barracks, chasing faculty and calling their fellow students to battle. Other cadets woke up, some got into the grog and others joined the faculty. Cadets and soldiers unsheathed swords, one person fired a pistol and the drunks tossed furniture through windows and ripped up the banisters.
As 6:00 a.m. rolled around on Christmas morning, the riot had calmed down. Some of the revelers were still drunk and others had begun to nurse hangovers. What came next was the largest mass expulsion in West Point’s history.
Historians say as many as 70 cadets and faculty participated in the riot. Thayer ordered the arrest of 23 of the cadets and spent two months investigating the event. Davis sold out some of his fellow drunks and Robert E. Lee testified as a witness. In the end, Thayer expelled 19 of his students. However, the faculty relented by March and allowed some of the students to continue their studies on a provisional basis.
When West Point rebuilt the North Barracks in the 1840s, Thayer had future riots in mind. The hallways were shorter and each floor forced students to exit the building before traveling to a different floor. It was about crowd control—Thayer wanted to inhibit the destructive path of future drunks.
Alcohol is still banned throughout most of West Point, but it certainly still sneaks in.