[December 24, 2018] It was Christmas Eve, 1826, and there were no little feet running through the house getting ready to open gifts. At the famous U.S. West Point Military Academy there was, however, good cheer that was about to erupt into a riot. What is known as the Great West Point Eggnog Riot was the result of a hard-ass superintendent who refused cadets a little brew.
“What we won’t do for a modest taste of our ‘special’ medicine?” noted one of the cadets in a letter home. Eggnog, that sweet milky beverage that is favored by children, was at the center of an altercation that imperiled the careers of men who would later become famous during the U.S. Civil War.
It all began when West Point leadership cracked down on the drinking of rum-laced eggnog.1 Alcohol consumption had always been against the rules for the cadets but was unofficially tolerated in certain circumstances. Drunkenness and intoxication were nevertheless prohibited and could lead to demerits, loss of privileges, or dismissal. In response to the draconian rules, a small group of cadets decided to throw the biggest party West Point had ever seen.
The southern boys were the most rambunctious of all the cadets and set about acquiring some hard liquor from Benny Havens’ tavern. Havens was dear to the cadets, both then and now and is remembered still by the Long Gray Line who sings a song called “Benny Havens, Oh!”
A number of cadets showed what leadership, instilled with poor judgment, can do. A number of the cadets were involved that later prove to be of great courage in war and of service to their nation. Some of them were also to serve in the Confederacy like Jefferson Davis who became the President of the Confederate States of America. He graduated from West Point in 1828.
After an inquiry involving 167 witnesses, 70 cadets were determined to be involved in the riots. Superintendent Thayer picked the worst offenders for prosecution at a court-martial. It is of interest that the U.S. military justice system is founded in the American Revolution.
The importance of discipline, tradition, and an impartial military judicial system were tested. After the trials had been completed, sentences of the cadets were revived by the Secretary of War, the U.S. Congress, and President James Monroe. This demonstrated the importance of the rule of law and the proper authority of the officers of West Point.