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Episode 11 - Christmas Mutiny

Updated: Feb 6

Listen: https://www.americathebizarre.com/listen/episode/3247fd03/11-christmas-mutiny


On January 27, 1778 the continental army first occupied West Point, New York and between 1778 and 1780, a garrison was constructed there to be used during the Revolutionary War to protect the Hudson River Valley from British ships. The fort was known as Fort Arnold, named after the fort’s commander, Benedict Arnold. In 1780, Benedict Arnold secretly agreed to surrender the fort at West Point to the British in exchange for 6,000 pounds. Before Arnold was able to surrender the fort, the plot was discovered by the continental army and Arnold fled to the British for protection and the fort’s name was changed to Fort Clinton, named after General James Clinton.

Starting in 1794, cadets were sent to West Point to study and train in artillery and engineering. Alexander Hamilton introduced a bill to the house of representatives that laid out plans for the establishment of a military academy at West Point and Thomas Jefferson directed the academy to open shortly after his inauguration in 1801. The United States Military Academy officially opened on July 4, 1802. The school opened with three instructors and ten cadets. There were very few standards for admission or length of study in the beginning. Cadets ranged in age from 10 years old and 37 years old and their attendance would range between 6 months and 6 years. The War of 1812 inspired Congress to spend more money on the academy. The money allowed the academy to expand it’s facilities and increase the number of cadets to 250.

Colonel Sylvanus Thayer ruled West Point as superintendent from 1817 to 1833 and is known as “The Father of West Point”. Thayer came to West Point hoping to turn it into a respected place of military learning and quickly implemented strict rules while he was in charge including prohibiting cadets from leaving the grounds without permission, cooking in the dorms, or dueling. The cadets were fed a diet of beef, bread, and water to prepare them for military rations that they would receive in the field. Since the opening of West Point, cadets were allowed to drink alcohol on only two days of the year: the fourth of July and Christmas. On July 4, 1825 the party started to get a little rowdy and the cadets started a snake dance. Some of the students grabbed the school’s commandant, William Worth, hoisted him up on their shoulders, and carried him back to their barracks. Thayer was furious and quickly shut down the festivities. Starting in 1826, Thayer banned any alcohol on campus including fourth of July and Christmas. If a cadet was found drinking, they would be court martialed and expelled. July 4th, 1826, America’s 50th birthday, was celebrated completely sober on West Point.

There were to taverns located just outside of walls that surrounded West Point: Martin’s Tavern and Benny Haven. The taverns were illegal for cadets to visit, but many cadets did anyways with many commanding officers turning a blind eye when they saw cadets at the tavern. Benny Haven would let cadets trade shoes and blankets in exchange for alcohol as long as it wasn’t the academy’s property. Edgar Allan Poe spent most of his time while attending the academy at Benny Haven until his many absences led to his dismissal after only a year at West Point. Poe would call Benny Haven “the sole congenial soul in the entire God-forsaken place.” There was actually a third tavern named North’s Tavern that was directly behind West Point. Thayer bought the tavern and property it sat on and turned it into a hospital, hoping to keep cadets from sneaking off and drinking.

Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, was arrested and censured several times for leaving his post to go drink at the taverns and was actually the first cadet to be arrested for drinking at Benny Haven. Another time after drinking at the tavern, Davis and his friends decided it was time to go to

bed and began the walk back to their dorm at West Point. All of a sudden, Davis disappeared from his friends’ sight. Davis had drunkenly fallen 60 feet into a ravine. His friends started yelling out for him, hoping that he didn’t break his neck. Luckily, Davis was alive and he said he didn’t really even feel a thing, though he did have a lengthy stay in the hospital.

That Christmas, Davis and his friends decided that it wouldn’t be a proper Christmas without a drunken party, Thayer’s rules be damned. In the days leading up to Christmas Eve, four sets of cadets abandoned their posts in order to get alcohol for the party. The cadets rowed across the river to the Martin’s Tavern (because the liquor there was cheaper than at Benny’s). When they got to Martin’s, they had a few drinks and then they bought a gallon of brandy and a gallon of wine and then worked out a deal with the tavern to get a gallon of whiskey on credit. Another set of cadets went to go buy eggs, milk, and nutmeg to make eggnog and some of the cadets went to Benny Haven to buy some mutton in case anyone got the drunk munchies. After rowing back across the Hudson, they found an enlisted soldier standing guard at the dock. The cadets paid the soldier 35 cents to look the other way while they unloaded the alcohol and snuck it into their dorm. The plan was to mix everything together into a very boozy eggnog, which had been the traditional drink of the annual Christmas party at West Point.

Eggnog can be traced back to medieval Europe, when it was usually only enjoyed by the upper class because fresh milk was hard to come by. When Americans started to drink eggnog, it was widely enjoyed by everyone because most of the ingredients were usually easily found at any farm and the “Triangle Trade” between New England, West Africa, and the West Indies made rum widely available to the colonists. George Washington even had his own famous recipe for eggnog that included rum, sherry, brandy, and whiskey.

Thayer wasn’t stupid and figured that some of the cadets would try to sneak alcohol in for Christmas. At a small holiday party on the 23rd, Thayer talked about the possibility of cadets trying to party with colleagues. Thayer decided to assign two officers, Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Lieutenant William A. Thorton to monitor the North Barracks for any trouble. On Christmas Eve, Hitchcock and Thornton made the rounds of the barracks, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary so they went to bed around midnight. Right around that same time, nine cadets started to dip into their batch of eggnog. Gradually, more and more cadets started to show up to the party and so it expanded to another room as well. Around 2 am, several of the cadets started singing very loudly while another cadet tried to get them to quiet down. By 4 am, the party started to get out of hand and sounds of the party could be heard through the floorboards. Hitchcock woke up to the noise and decided to go investigate.

Hitchcock walked into a dorm room and found six or seven very drunk cadets. He ordered them all to go back to their rooms and go to sleep. Hitchcock started to make his way back to his room when he heard sounds of another party coming from another room. When he went into that room, he found two cadets trying to hide from him under a blanket. A third cadet was using a hat to cover his face so that Hitchcock couldn’t identify him. Hitchcock ordered the cadet to remove the hat and the cadets and Hitchcock started yelling at each other.

Hitchcock read the group of cadets the riot act and then left to go investigate more noises that were coming from the floor below. Hitchcock found an even bigger party and while trying to break it up,

Jefferson Davis burst into the room and yelled “Put away the grog boys! Captain Hitchcock’s coming!” Hitchcock immediately ordered Davis back to his room and Davis complied. Other cadets were not so ready to stop partying. One cadet yelled “Get your dirks and bayonets… and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!”

By now, Thornton had also been awoken by the party and was trying to break it up too. A cadet threatened Thornton with his sword and then another cadet hit Thorton with a piece of wood and knocked him down. Hitchcock was trying to break down a barricaded door when a cadet pulled out a pistol and tried to shoot Hitchcock. Luckily, another cadet bumped the shooter and the bullet hit the door jamb instead of Hitchcock, but it convinced Hitchcock that he needed backup. Hitchcock found a cadet relief sentinel and told him to bring the Commandant of Cadets.

Back in the barracks, rumors were going around that Hitchcock was gathering the bombardiers, which was the nickname for the regular artillery men stationed at West Point. The cadets hated the bombardiers and began to arm themselves for the impending attack. The cadets smashed windows and broke furniture. Davis was passed out in his room after he puked up all the eggnog left in his body, but woke up to his roommate loading his gun and then Davis rolled over and went back to sleep. The artillery men never came, because Hitchcock had never summoned them. Slowly, the drunken cadets began to sober up and when Commandent Worth showed up, they finally all calmed down and put their weapons away.

At 6 am on Christmas morning, the reveille sounded and the sober cadets of South Barracks quickly made their way to roll call. The cadets of the North Barracks awoke very hungover to their dorms being absolutely destroyed. There was broken windows, smashed furniture, bannisters that had been ripped off of stairs, and piles of shattered plates, dishes, and cups. The cadets of the North Barracks slowly made their way to roll call where Thayer was waiting for them.

Of the 260 total cadets attending West Point at the time, it was thought that as many as 90 of them had taken part in the eggnog riot. Thayer decided that expelling a third of the students would look poorly on the academy, he decided to implicate only the most serious of offenders. 22 of the cadets, including Jefferson Davis, were placed under house arrest. The weeks following Christmas were filled with investigations and court-martial proceedings. 19 cadets and one soldier were court martialed. Davis was spared of the proceedings, probably because he went straight to bed when Hitchcock told him to. For over a month, a tribunal of professors and soldier heard testimony from over 167 witnesses. One of these witnesses was a cadet named Robert E. Lee, who did not take part in the riot, but was a character witness for several of his classmates in hopes that they wouldn’t be expelled. Davis claimed that he didn’t rat out any of his fellow cadets, but records show that he did implicate his roommate that he woke up to loading his pistol.

All 19 cadets were found guilty and were sentenced to be expelled from the academy. Eight of the cadets found guilty were saved by a recommendation of clemency and were allowed to continue at the academy, and five of those eight ended up graduating. 53 other cadets that took part in the riot received lesser punishments. Jefferson Davis graduated in the bottom third of his class, but became a war hero in the Mexican-American War, and then the President of the Confederate States.

None of the buildings from the Eggnog Riot still stand, but when the academy decided to build new

barracks in 1840, they included short hallways in the design that would require cadets to exit the building in order to access another floor. This would make it more difficult for cadets to gather in large numbers if another riot did break out.

The academy is still open today with an enrollment of more than 4,000 students and is under the direction and supervision of the U.S. Army. The first African-American cadet was admitted into the academy in 1870 and the first female cadets were admitted in 1976.

Sources:

“When Eggnog Sparked a Riot at West Point” by Christopher Klein

“A Brief History of West Point” by the United States Military Academy

“Egg Nog: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Starts a Holiday Riot” by Natasha Geiling

“The Eggnog Riot” by Michelle Legro

“The Eggnog Riot” by Carol S. Funck

“U.S. Military Academy Established” an article on History.com

“The Boozy and Violent Story Behind America’s Eggnog Riot” by Matt Davis

“Ridiculous History: Here’s Why West Point Cadets Rioted Over Eggnog in 1826” by Laurie L. Dove

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