West Point is known as the premier military academy of the United States. Presidents have gone there, generals were trained there, and the face of the US military has largely been shaped by the West Point graduates.
It wasn’t always so, though, and in 1826, the entire school was almost demolished by a riot started by eggnog and, in large part, future President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis.
At the time, West Point was little more than a handful of buildings; it had only been around for 14 years, and when it had opened, it had been with little of the grandeur it would see later. There were 10 students and three teachers, but by 1826, the man who would transform it had become superintendent.
Part of Colonel Sylvanus Thayer’s plan for overhauling West Point into a respectable school was the abolishing of alcohol on the premises. He didn’t have much control over the nearby taverns that were off school property, so in one case, he bought the property and changed the building from a tavern to a hospital.
But then, like today, college students are nothing but resourceful and (also like today) believed that no holiday party was complete without some liquid libations of the alcoholic variety. So, a handful of cadets decided that they needed some whiskey for their eggnog.
Jefferson Davis had already set up something of a relationship with one of the nearby taverns. Benny Haven’s would allow students to barter personal items for alcohol—they were expensive, though, and what the cadets needed was some serious quantity. So they bribed some guards, headed across the Hudson River to another tavern, and brought back not a few gallons of whiskey.
It was only a few hours into Christmas Eve that the two officers appointed to keep an eye on Christmas Eve festivities were awakened by something of a ruckus. They burst into a dormitory to find a handful of cadets, visibly drunk, with a party continuing in the next room over. One of the cadets yelled instructions for others to get their dirks, their bayonets, and their pistols . . . and it went rather downhill from there.
One of the officers ran into Davis in a hallway—Davis, also drunk, led him back to the party where he promptly tried warning his cohorts that the officer was on his way. Davis went on his way at this point, presumably to sleep it off, when someone fired a shot at one of the officers. Officers called for the artillery men stationed at the school; there was already something of a rivalry between the cadets and the regular Army men, and their presence allowed the riot to gather even more steam. Soon, the cadets were protecting their buildings against the intrusion of the enlisted men.
At the time, there were 260 cadets at West Point. Ninety-some of them were involved in the riot, but knowing that it could be the end of the school, only 19 were put on trial and 11 were expelled. Three left of their own accord. The building that had been the North Barracks was largely destroyed, windows were broken, and among the charges leveled against the expelled was the assault of two officers. Building were rebuilt, and future buildings were constructed specifically with a design that would allow for easier crowd control.
Among those that testified on behalf of the holiday revelers were Jefferson Davis and the man who would become his most famous general, Robert E. Lee.