The Great West Point Eggnog Riot
On Christmas Eve, 1826, some of the cadets, including Jefferson Davis, broke the military school’s no drinking policy and indulged in a boozy Eggnog.
Long before Eggnog was just a boxy carton at the supermarket, one that turned up in the dairy case around Thanksgiving, people cared enough about the drink that they were willing to riot over it. And not just anybody, but the disciplined cadets of West Point.
It was Christmas Eve, 1826, and at the U.S. Military Academy it was anything but a silent night. Scores of cadets were in open, mutinous defiance of an order, of all things, that their holiday beverage be alcohol-free. The cadets nearly pulled the place down, and all because the officers denied them a proper drink of Christmas Eggnog.
The superintendent of the academy was a humorless martinet named Sylvanus Thayer. Tired of his charges flouting the rules against ardent spirits, Thayer had revoked the privilege that had allowed for cadets to indulge in a celebratory tot on Christmas Eve and George Washington’s birthday.
The southern boys attending school up in the heart of Yankee territory had a rebellious streak. They decided a party was in order, one that was contrary to Thayer’s order. But first they had to acquire some hard liquor in bulk. And for that, there was only one real choice.
The nearest booze to be had was at a tavern owned by publican Benny Havens. Originally near the academy, Havens had been pressured to move his establishment a mile or two down the road to “a small cottage at the base of the high cliff at Highland Falls.” The distance proved to be less an impediment than a lure. The hike didn’t discourage thirsty cadets from slipping off post, but it did make it more of a chore for officers to show up and police the prohibition on drinking.
Havens was dear to the cadets, both then and now. Edgar Allan Poe spent a few grim months as a cadet at the military academy, and found his only solace at the tavern. Poe would later declare Benny to be “the sole congenial soul in the entire God-forsaken place.”
Benny Havens is remembered still by the Long Gray Line, who sing a song called “Benny Havens, Oh!” to the tune of “The Wearing of the Green.” By 1859 there were already some 18 verses of the song. Now there are dozens more. One of the first written out went, in part:
Old Benny was happy to oblige with gallon jugs of whiskey, which the cadets snuck back into their rooms. While the Eggnog was getting mixed up, the cadet who would in a few decades’ time be president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, helped organize the rumbustion, inviting his classmates to come get a pop or three. Davis, it should be noted, escaped being implicated in the worst of the rioting. This was not because he behaved with the standoffish sobriety of fellow cadet Robert E. Lee. No, Davis was fortunate to have been too drunk to do much damage: Having had a head-start with the Eggnog, by the time his classmates were in full revolt Davis had stumbled back to his quarters and fallen asleep.
The Eggnog was a stiff mix and there was plenty of it. Which explains what happened next: “A large number of the cadets got on a spree, and became excessively riotous, setting all officers at defiance and even, with a drawn sword, chasing one to his room,” recounted longtime Academy mathematics professor Albert E. Church. When troops were organized to quell the rambunctious bunch, they turned into a mob, throwing firewood, breaking windows and smashing the railings of the stairs. One miscreant, Cadet Richard B. Screven “was particularly wild, shouting, breaking tables and brandishing a musket.”
Of the 70 cadets arrested early that Christmas morning, some 20 later faced court-martial.
President John Quincy Adams had the unpleasant chore of going through the trial transcripts and determining which cadets should face the full punishment prescribed (expulsion, for most) and which might be allowed to resign instead, or even have their sentences remitted.
Adams was set upon by a succession of congressmen and senators and military men whose sons were in the dock. They were all looking for the president to do them a favor.
Typical was Colonel Bomford, who came to get instructions from Adams on the building of “the road between the Arsenal and the Penitentiary,” as the president noted in his diary. Soon, Bomford worked the conversation around to his son, George, who had been one of the Eggnog rioters.
“He spoke with a sore feeling of the difficulty which has arisen concerning the appointment by Colonel Thayer of a Court of Enquiry,” Adams recounts of old Bomford. “He complained also that there was no proper graduation of punishments at that institution.” Bomford asked the president if he had decided what to do about the trials. “I told him I should decide upon them all in a few days.”
“There is much delicacy in this affair,” President Adams lamented to his diary. Savvy to political propriety, Adams noted that “interferences of fathers and members of Congress with Courts-martial” are “in no wise favorable to the support of discipline.” And beyond what it would mean for West Point, there was the question what Adams’ actions would mean for his own reputation: Whatever “decision I make will be sharply censured.”
One of the cadets who survived without being expelled was John Archibald Campbell, later a Supreme Court Justice in the decade before the Civil War. Who would have thought it possible that someone so deep in his cups at school would rise to the high court?
A few of those who were expelled would later be found in uniforms of cadet grey—Confederate uniforms, that is. There was Benjamin Humphreys, rebel general and post-war governor of Mississippi. Hugh Weedon Mercer’s expulsion was remitted, but he chose to be a general for the South rather than the Union when the time came.
Men once risked their careers, their futures, for properly constituted Eggnog. The least we can do is make a better (and tastier) effort than just buying the supermarket stuff. And so here’s a recipe that’s based on the kind that the cadets might well have mixed up. Enjoy it this Christmas, and don’t forget to raise a cheer to Benny Havens—Oh!
- 1 Egg
- 2 Tbsp Powdered sugar
- 2 to 3 oz Whiskey
- 4 oz Cream
- 2 oz Milk
- Garnish: Grated nutmeg
In a large bowl, lightly beat the egg yolk and sugar. In another bowl, beat the egg whites to soft peaks. Add the whiskey, cream, milk and most of the egg whites to the sugar and yolk mixture. Stir. Fold in the remaining egg whites and garnish with fresh grated nutmeg.