By Carol S. Funck, U. S. Army Heritage and Education CenterDecember 22, 2010
Many holiday parties and celebrations at this time of year include social drinking of home-made eggnog and other spirituous beverages. Most participants do so responsibly and enjoyably, but serious situations can arise from too much of the "good stuff," as some West Point Cadets found out in 1826.
During this week in 1826, the Superintendent of West Point, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, found himself dealing with the aftermath of what has been called the "Eggnog Riot." Over the Christmas holiday, several cadets had taken part in what was considered tradition around the hallowed halls of West Point: a Christmas celebration that included the gathering of cadets to enjoy some home-made eggnog and take a break from the grueling regimen of cadet life. Prior to Colonel Thayer's arrival at West Point, the superintendents turned a blind eye to this ritual. The difference for cadets in 1826 was Colonel Thayer's strict rules forbidding purchasing, storing, or consuming alcohol. These rules did not stop a number of students from preparing for the Christmas festivities. A few of the cadets took Thayer's regulations as a challenge and intended to outsmart the superintendent and his staff by having the best holiday celebration West Point had seen. The term "celebration" may not apply in this case, but the incident of the "Eggnog Riot" was something West Point had never experienced. At least seventy cadets took part in the shenanigans, resulting in assaults on two officers and destruction of North Barracks, as some of the students, in their inebriated state, had smashed several windows.
On December 26, Col. Thayer gathered his staff to discuss the previous night's events. Within the following weeks, Order No. 98, which placed twenty-two cadets on restrictions, and Order No. 49, which directed the development of a court of inquiry, were issued by Major General Alexander Macomb, Chief Engineer of the Army and Inspector of the Academy. Order No. 49 began a process of interviews to investigate the events of December 25. With this order, Major General Macomb and Colonel Thayer hoped to charge the ringleaders with the events of the riot.
After almost a month of inquiries, the decision was made to courts-martial nineteen cadets and one Soldier for their conduct on Christmas Eve. The trials began on January 26, 1827, and ended on March 8, 1827. During this time Cadets William E. Aisquith, Benjamin G. Humphreys, Walter B. Guion, James W. M. Berrien, Fayette Norvelle, David M. Farrelly, George E. Bomford, James L. Thompson, Hugh W. Mercer, Benjamin F. Gard, Thomas Swords, Jr., Richard B. Screven, Bill Fitzgerald, John C. Stocker, T. M. Lewis, Wiliam R. Burnley, Samuel Roberts, Anthony Johnson, and William D. C. Murdock defended their actions in an attempt to stay at West Point. Classmates, including Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis (the latter of whom had actually participated in the festivities, but was not charged with an offense), testified in some of the charged cadets' defense, as the accused found themselves facing a tough tribunal of their professors and superiors.
By March 8, eleven cadets (Humphreys, Stocker, Guion, Farrelly, Lewis, Fitzgerald, Burnley, Roberts, Berrien, Bomford, and Johnson) found that they no longer were allowed to wear the grey, and were dismissed from West Point. The other eight cadets (Aisquith, Mercer, Swords, Murdock, Screven, Norvelle, Thompson, and Gard) were remitted from dismissal, and all but Norvelle, Gard, and Murdock remained at West Point. The lengthy period between the original inquiries and sentencing must have been stressful for the young men, as their future at West Point was being debated due to one night's quest for a good time.
Years have passed since the cadets overindulged on eggnog, but the moral of their story is still applicable. Too much of the "good stuff" can lead to serious consequences. So remember this story as the holiday parties approach; let's not let one night of fun alter our future as nineteen West Point cadets had.
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021. Website: www.carlisle.army.mil/ahec