“The Necessity of a Rigorous Example”: Discipline, West Point, and the Eggnog Riot
In the whiskey-soaked dawn of Christmas morning, a party spilled out of the barracks rooms at West Point. Fueled by contraband whiskey, a revelrous group of cadets turned their high spirits against their officers, threatening them with clubs, swords, and even a pistol. The rabble-rousers of 1826 paid with more than just their hangovers. When the Eggnog Riot came to an end, it had claimed the potential commissions of 12 would-be graduates. To those more familiar with the gleaming procession of the Corps of Cadets onto the field at the Army-Navy Game, such history seems almost impossible to imagine. But the United States Military Academy, and the Army itself, was built year by year, generation after generation, with disorder and discipline in constant tension.
The history department at West Point is today housed in Thayer Hall, named after the pivotal superintendent Col. Sylvanus Thayer, whose reorganization and reforms placed the academy on a firm institutional footing after his arrival in 1817 — with long term implications not only for West Point but also for the larger professionalization of the Army’s officer corps. In addition to fundamental reforms to both the academic and military courses of instruction at West Point, Thayer imposed a strict disciplinary regime on cadets that the latter resisted and obstructed in various ways. Thayer and the Army’s larger leadership were by no means inflexible in their management of the Corps of Cadets, but during his tenure as superintendent, cadets continually clashed with his severe regime. Acts of cadet defiance included a failed attempt in 1821 to bombard Thayer’s quarters with an artillery piece, and an alcohol-inspired disorder on the Fourth of July in 1825. These problems eventually culminated in the eggnog-inspired attempt at rebellion.
The infamous riot stemmed in part from the clash between Thayer’s desire to impose discipline on cadets, and the cadets’ desire to continue to drink liquor. Thayer had banned alcohol for the Fourth of July celebrations in 1826, in part due to the raucous outcome the previous year, and the holiday had passed without incident. In the past, cadets had also imbibed alcohol during the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Day before reveille, but Thayer now also attempted to suppress that practice by ordering his subordinates to closely monitor the cadets. At approximately 4 a.m., Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who later went on to distinguished combat service in the Mexican War, heard cadets up to no good and proceeded to the room where illicit festivities were occurring. Shortly thereafter, Cadet Jefferson Davis, future U.S. Secretary of War and Confederate President, gave away the game completely when burst in the room, blurting out, “Put away that liquor, boys.” Davis had obviously heard Hitchcock’s approach but failed to make it in time; the superior officer promptly put Davis under arrest and ordered him and other cadets to their respective rooms. As Hitchcock later put it during judicial proceedings, “I had no doubt the purpose of the assemblage was that of amusement.” Whether out of intoxication or prudence, Davis saved his subsequent military career by remaining in his quarters for the rest of the evening, while much of the rest of the North Barracks erupted in a riot.
Hitchcock thought he had resolved the matter, but he proved badly mistaken. As he put it later in the court of inquiry adjudicating the riot:
After I had returned to my own room acts of violence were commenced in the barrack, such as throwing sticks of wood against my own door, and my windows very soon after were assailed with stones and every glass broken but three. It was about this time that some person commenced beating the drum. I at first thought it was the commencement of reveille, but discovering the contrary by the irregularity of the beat, descended to the guardroom from which the noise proceeded and found Cadet Bibb standing immediately over the drum — the head of which was broken in.
Lucien I. Bibb would avoid expulsion at West Point and even return as Hitchcock’s assistant when the older officer became Commandant, only to die in 1831 at the age of twenty-four. On the way to his mortifying encounter with Bibb, Hitchcock ran through a gauntlet of enraged cadets:
While descending to the guard room — there were a considerable number of Cadets in the halls and upon the stairs — and many sticks of wood were thrown which as I supposed were aimed at me. One slightly touched my arm. The Cadets however had dispersed — with the exception of Cadet Bibb before-mentioned. Form this time forward — until after the regular beat of reveille — there was an uninterrupted noise in and about the Barrack — such as throwing billets of fire-wood and stones and the discharge of firearms. Many of the windows (glass and sashes) were broken, as also the bannisters of the stairway… At this time — many clubs were thrown in the hall — from which I was obliged to seek protection in my own room.
If anything, Hitchcock’s testimony understated the chaos; cadets were firing weapons, brandishing cold steel, and defying their superiors. Daybreak finally came, and shortly afterwards arrived Bvt. Maj. William J. Worth, the Commandant of Cadets, well-known for his valorous service in the War of 1812 and who would go on to further laurels during the Mexican War. Though he was a strict disciplinarian, inebriated cadets had carried him on their shoulders during the infamous Independence Day celebrations the year before, and he had a better rapport with the Corps of Cadets than did Thayer. Cadet Alfred E. Church, who would graduate the following year and eventually teach mathematics at West Point for over four decades, later described Worth’s “word of command” as “electric and there was a uniformity and accuracy of motion of those under his command, which I have never seen equalled.” While Church did not himself connect Worth’s military bearing to the aftermath of the Eggnog Riot, the force of his presence likely helped restore order to the situation.
With his usual alacrity, Thayer put the wheels of discipline into motion and convened a court of inquiry headed by Worth, whose investigation implicated a third of the Corps of Cadets. Expelling a third of the student body proved impractical for obvious reasons, especially since Thayer had only recently put the larger institution on firmer footing and such a mass expulsion would cause unavoidable political controversy. In the end, Thayer court-martialed 19 cadets with another 53 punished but retained at West Point. All 19 were convicted, but President John Quincy Adams accepted the court’s recommendations of clemency for seven of the convicted cadets. Adams for the most part approved the results of Worth’s investigations and sustained the dismissal of the remaining 12 cadets. He acknowledged:
The confirmation of so many sentences of dismission from the Academy, of Young Men from whom their Country had a right to expect better things, is an act of imperious though painful duty. Of duty the more painful, because it has not escaped the attention of the President, that the penalty bears not merely upon the transgression, but, upon the prospects of the offenders and upon the cherished expectations of virtuous parents and friends.
Nevertheless, Adams insisted that “these considerations must yield to the necessity of a rigorous example.”
The bedrock principle of discipline had triumphed, but even Thayer could not completely quell the forces of disorder. Indeed, he found dissent among his own officers. The somewhat unruly independence of mind that could make cadets difficult to manage could also be found among their officers. Hitchcock, who had borne the brunt of cadet wrath during the holiday rebellion, would the following spring challenge Thayer’s authority to convene courts of inquiry at West Point. He later claimed that his defiance stemmed from “the necessity; — [sic] and even the supreme duty — imposed upon subordinates to obstruct all attempts to exercise arbitrary power in violation of the clear provisions of law.” Thayer exiled his recalcitrant subordinate to the frontier, but eventually relented and in 1829 Hitchcock returned as Commandant. There, the two would be allies in a battle with President Andrew Jackson over recurring questions of cadet discipline; the new president believed Thayer an overbearing martinet and frequently intervened to overturn his disciplinary decisions. An exasperated Thayer offered his resignation, which Jackson accepted, and he departed West Point in the summer of 1833.
Jefferson Davis, who had helped procure the notorious party punch — only one of many examples of his regular defiance of regulations — would graduate and go on to a successful military and political career, if one excludes the failed Confederate nation-building project. As Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, Davis proved a competent and even visionary head of the War Department. However, now Davis was the authority figure struggling with proud subordinates jealous of their status and prerogatives. Davis’ own acerbic disposition hardly helped matters. And when Davis went on to become president of the Confederate States of America, he would once again struggle to manage former U.S. Army officers now turned into Confederate generals, who frequently responded poorly to his attempts to coordinate their efforts into a cohesive war effort. Cadet Davis might have escaped the full consequences of the ill-discipline and military disorder in which he partook on that infamous Christmas Eve of his youth, but President Davis would not.
Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh is an Associate Professor of History at the United States Naval Academy. He also served as a State Department political officer in Iraq between July 2008 and June 2009, where he managed civilian U. S. Government efforts in the Tuz district. He is one of the co-authors (along with Williamson Murray) of A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War (Princeton University Press, 2016) and the author of West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), along with numerous academic articles.