When I think of riots here in America my mind usually flashes back to the 1960’s. In Los Angeles you had the Watts Riots, in Detroit, you had the 12th Street Riot, in Chicago they were rioting over race as well as at the 1968 Democratic Convention and that’s just to name a few. Across the country in many major cities, especially those with a large minority population people were fed up with conditions and in most cases poverty was rampant and probably the root cause of the problem. Of course the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy helped trigger an already explosive situation.
So in my mind, riots are usually associated with big cities. They’re certainly not associated with the hallowed halls of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
”A man’s true character comes out when he’s drunk”
We have to travel all the way back to 1825 when cadets were allowed to drink on only two occasions. Those days of merriment were reserved for the 4th of July and Christmas. In the eyes of the superintendent, one Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, the 4th of July celebration denigrated into such a state of debauchery that he deemed no alcohol was to be allowed on campus. Anyone caught imbibing of the demon liquor was to be arrested and expelled.
Enter one Jefferson Davis. It seems the future president of the Confederacy had quite the reputation when it came to flaunting the rules and was quite well renowned for tipping a few back every now and then. He and his friends hatched a plan to defy authority and throw an all-nighter on Christmas Eve, 1826. Their beverage of choice was eggnog.
Unlike the innocent eggnog of today that we can pluck off the grocery store shelves the concoction back then packed quite the punch. It consisted of large quantities of whiskey, rye, rum, brandy, sherry and assorted spices and cut with milk to help mask the flavor.
A plan was hatched and a group of four students set out to two of the local taverns to procure the necessary ingredients. In addition to the booze, numerous legs of mutton were also brought in to help feed the partygoers.
What resulted was the largest mass expulsion in the history of West Point.
The festivities began around midnight with nine cadets starting things off in one of the dorm rooms. As parties are wont to do, it eventually grew in size and spread to another room. At around two in the morning the group, feeling the early effects of the eggnog, burst out in singing and dancing. At around four in the morning, the noise grew so loud that it attracted the attention of one of the faculty members.
Upon arriving at the dorm rooms and seeing the state of affairs, Jefferson and his eight cohorts were placed under arrest. The rest of them were warned to cease and desist from continuing the party.
Apparently this didn’t sit well with remainder of the participants. They decided to track down the arresting officer and give him a piece of their mind. That soon expanded to include members of the faculty and it wasn’t long before a full scale riot broke out. Windows and furniture were broken and swords were drawn between the festival goers and other students who had try to stop the proceedings. Pistol shots were fired and while no one was killed, one lieutenant was knocked out cold.
By the time 6:00AM reveille rolled around the place was a scene of chaos. There were fist fights and shouting and it wouldn’t be for another few hours until the cadets were ordered back to their rooms to sober up and order was restored.
An ensuing investigation was ordered and determined that somewhere between 50 and 90 students had participated in the riot in some form or another. When you consider that the enrollment at the time was around 260, that’s a pretty large percentage.
In the end, twenty three cadets were arrested and nineteen were eventually expelled. A few other got busted in rank.
Ironically, the instigator of the whole thing, Jefferson Davis, was spared any disciplinary action. It seems after his arrest he went back to his room, puked, and passed out in a drunken stupor and never particpated in the riot itself. Later, records would show that Davis turned whistleblower and named names about who was responsible for smuggling in the liquor in exchange for being allowed to graduate.