The Eggnog riot: The violent past of your favourite Christmas drink
Today, eggnog is probably best known for dodgy coffee shop seasonal specials. However, at the beginning of the 19th century, the drink was experiencing something of a populist boom. It may have owed its success to the fact that it was nearly always fortified with copious amounts of alcohol. George Washington himself had a famous recipe for the drink that featured rum, sherry, brandy and whisky. Contemporary ‘nog lovers unanimously agreed that the more booze, the better the drink. Brewed with eggs, milk, sugar and spices, it was relatively easy to source and prepare for even the most incompetent of brewers.
All over America, eggnog played a crucial role in the seasonal celebrations of several famous institutions. Among these was the hallowed West Point Military Academy in the state of New York. Founded in 1802, West Point is the oldest and arguably the most famous of America’s five US Service Academies. The brainchild of President Thomas Jefferson, the school was conceived as a means for providing the United States with a steady stream of competent, highly trained young officers to lead the nation’s armed forces against would-be aggressors.
Since West Point’s foundation, the students had maintained an obsessive love of booze. Despite the ban on alcohol within the confines of the academy's grounds, there were a number of local watering holes within easy reach for the enterprising cadet. The most notorious of these was Benny Haven’s, where cadets could trade shoes and blankets for liquor. The tavern regularly provoked the ire of West Point’s commanding officers, as wayward students were often apprehended stumbling back from the tavern in the dead of night, attempting to loudly sneak back into silent dorms. Among the most infamous of offenders was future President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, who once distinguished himself by attempting to evade capture after a drunken escapade by leaping into a 60 foot deep ravine.
By 1826, the general consensus was that student drinking had got well and truly out of hand. This led to the decision to cancel the traditional Christmas party - a fixture in the West Point calendar since the institution’s inception. Needless to say, the student body was not happy. Not to be denied their night of revelry, the residents of North Barracks began to hatch a plan. The seeds of the most chaotic night in military education’s history were being sown.
Determined to beat the ban, students elected to smuggle in as much booze as they could lay their hands on. Several days before Christmas, Cadets Center, Roberts and Burnley crossed the Hudson river and headed to the local St Martin’s Tavern to secure as much liquor as they could carry. Meanwhile, Jefferson Davis, alongside Cadets Stocker, Guion and Farrelly, headed to Benny Haven’s with a similar agenda. The raiding parties bribed a guard with 35 cents to ensure successful delivery of the payload upon their return to West Point. Together, they had secured between three and four gallons (12 to 18 litres) of whisky and rum for the barracks’ 90 or so inhabitants. Coupled with locally-sourced milk, eggs and stolen sugar, the cadets had the recipe for huge quantities of potent 'nog.
As excited students began brewing on Christmas Eve, North Barracks was left under the command of Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Lieutenant William A. Thornton. After patrolling the corridors for unruly cadets, the two retired for bed at around midnight. Unbeknownst to them, the party was beginning to kick off. In room no.28, nine cadets were quietly drinking eggnog from wooden buckets. Meanwhile, in room no.5, a further seven cadets, including Jefferson Davis, were engaged in further frivolity. Farrelly, fearful that the group’s supply of eggnog would run low, elected to make a second run to Benny Haven’s and returned early on Christmas morning with another gallon of whisky.
At 0400, Hitchcock awoke to the sounds of noisy cadets from the floors above him. Riled, he rose and proceeded to room no.28. Opening the door, Hitchcock discovered several cadets visibly inebriated, smelling strongly of liquor and gently swaying in front of a recently-extinguished fire. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted what looked like two men hiding under a woollen blanket. He ordered them to come out and they did so, each wearing decidedly sheepish expressions. Angrily, Hitchcock demanded that all cadets return to their rooms.
It became apparent that there remained someone still hiding beneath the blanket. The captain demanded that the figure reveal his identity. Still concealed by the blanket, the figure instead attempted to slowly sidle out of the room, watched in stunned silence by the other cadets. Losing patience, Hitchcock forcibly removed the sheet, only to reveal that the young man was still concealing his features with a hat. After tearing away the hat to reveal the slack expression of Cadet George Skipwith, Hitchcock reiterated the command to return to bed, before himself retiring for the second time. It was 0415.
Hitchcock’s completely justifiable behaviour had not gone down well with the cadets. After he had left room no. 28, William “Mad Billy” Murdoch appealed to the inebriated assembly. Furious at the slight to Skipwith’s honour, Murdoch exclaimed, “Get your dirks and bayonets...and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!” The sozzled students were only too happy to take up arms. The West Point Eggnog Riot was about to begin.
No sooner had Hitchcock returned to his room, when he was disturbed by footsteps and whispering in the corridor outside, followed by three loud raps at the door. The sound appeared to be being made by either the butt of a pistol or another heavy, blunt object. Undeterred, Hitchcock arose from his bed and strode towards the door. As he turned the handle, the footsteps beyond scattered down the corridor. Hitchcock emerged from his room to see a silhouette at the end of the darkened hall yell, “Hally-Ho Hitch!” before giggling and disappearing from view. Hearing more commotion from upstairs, the captain stiffened his resolve and ventured out.
Before too long, Hitchcock came across an especially intoxicated Cadet Stocker staggering down a corridor, leaning heavily on a large piece of wood. Hitchcock demanded that the cadet return to bed, but Stocker merely stood there, hiccupping. Eventually, Stocker slurred that the officer should “not go about any unnecessary business”, before pausing, retching and lurching off into the gloom. Hitchcock elected not to pursue.
The captain was instead drawn on by the distant sound of a gathering that was seemingly larger and louder than the one he had previously broken up in room no. 28. It did not take him long to identify room no. 5 as the source. Hitchcock burst into the room to reveal 13 cadets making merry with several buckets of eggnog. An awkward silence greeted his entry.
Having previously heard threats issued against Hitchcock earlier in the evening, Jefferson Davis felt uneasy for the captain’s safety. Whilst himself partying down the hall in room no. 8, Davis had heard what he believed to be Hitchcock approaching the revellers in room no.5. Fearing for the captain’s life, he resolved to save him. Drunkenly charging down the corridor, the future President of the Confederacy burst into room no. 5, crying, “Put away the grog boys! Captain Hitchcock’s coming!” It was at this point that he realised Hitchcock was already in the room, staring incredulously at him.
By now apoplectic with rage, Hitchcock placed Davis and others under arrest and, not for the first time that evening, demanded that they return to their rooms. Davis did so. Hitchcock then turned his attention to the rest of the room’s inhabitants. He demanded that the cadet responsible for the room open the footlockers that Hitchcock believed contained the hidden liquor. Instead of complying, the befuddled cadet lay down on the floor. Unsure of how best to proceed, Hitchcock left the room.
At about this time, Lieutenant Thornton finally awoke. Emerging from his room at approximately 0450, Thornton discovered packs of drunk cadets freely marauding the corridors. Upon accosting two particularly disgruntled-looking young men, Thornton found himself threatened with a long, curved sword, wielded by “top five student” William Fitzgerald. Thornton was eventually beaten over the head and knocked unconscious with a piece of wood by an exceptionally intoxicated Cadet Roberts.
Hitchcock was faring little better. Now barricaded in his own room, he was trapped by a large mob of heavily armed cadets, who were using firewood as a makeshift battering ram. Impatient, Cadet Guion produced a loaded pistol and took aim at the nearly-splintered door. An accidental jolt from a slumping Cadet Thompson meant that the shot missed the door and thudded into the frame. Seizing the moment, Hitchcock burst out of his room, causing startled cadets to fall back in shock. Having apparently learned little from previous efforts, the captain once again demanded cadets return to their quarters. He was largely ignored.
It was clear that support was needed. After eventually finding a traumatised cadet relief sentinel, Hitchcock asked the student to “bring the ‘com here”, by which he meant Commandant of Cadets William Worth. Unfortunately, a nearby group of drunk rioters misheard the command as “bring the bombardiers”, a reference to West Point’s hated artillery personnel. Word soon spread of the imminent arrival of the despised gunners, causing almost every student in the North Barracks to take up arms and fortify the building against the oncoming assault. The assembled cadets proceeded to smash windows, furniture and crockery, as well as steal the Barracks’ collection of musical instruments.
Eventually, Commandant Worth arrived on the scene. His mere presence put a stop to the chaos. The morning bugle was sounded, and the men who could still stand began to drunkenly gather in the assembly area. The sober and shocked residents of South Barracks woke on Christmas morning to find their fellow cadets strewn about the grounds, collapsed on stairwells and passed out in various unflattering positions. The still-drunk cadets of North Barracks began emerging from the remnants of the building, grumbling, swearing and looking significantly worse for wear. Around them lay the broken remains of the armoury and kitchen, as well as the snoring bodies of less resilient comrades. The Eggnog Riot was over.
West Point dealt with the perpetrators severely. Nineteen cadets were expelled from the academy, though several of them, including “Mad Bill” Murdoch, had their punishments remitted. Jefferson Davis, having returned to his room when asked by Hitchcock, managed to escape court-martial. Hitchcock himself rose through the ranks to become a Major General in the US army, before leaving the armed services after being denied a leave of absence due to health reasons by then Minister for War - Jefferson Davis.
Today, very few residents of West Point are aware of the most tumultuous night in their school’s history. There is no longer a tradition of seasonal celebration and alcohol consumption is, unsurprisingly, strictly limited. Never before or since has eggnog been employed to such devastating effect. It seems unlikely that it ever will again.