Thursday, December 24, 2015

Alabama has strong ties to the infamous 'Eggnog Riot' of 1826

Ethan Allen Hitchcock
Christmas is tomorrow (Friday) and with that in mind I can’t help but think of one of my all-time favorite Christmas stories, the tale of the infamous “Eggnog Riot” of 1826.

As best that I can remember, the first time I ever heard about this unusual incident was in Kelly Kazek’s 2011 book, “Christmas Tales of Alabama.” According to Kazek’s book and other sources, the Eggnog Riot occurred 189 years ago – on Dec. 24-25, 1826 – at the United State Military Academy, which is located along the frosty banks of the Hudson River in West Point, N.Y.

As many of you know, eggnog is a traditional Christmas beverage that’s made out of milk, sugar and eggs. More often than not, alcohol is added to this drink to give it an extra punch, which is why it’s often served at Christmas parties. In 1826, alcohol was forbidden at West Point, and if you got caught with it, you could be expelled.

At the time, only about 260 cadets attended West Point, and, as the story goes, a few of these young men decided to smuggle some whiskey into their barracks to liven up their Christmas celebrations. The three ring leaders included a cadet from New York and two cadets from Alabama, William R. Burnley and Samuel Alexander Roberts.

Under the cover of darkness on Dec. 22, these three used a small boat to smuggle two gallons of whiskey across the Hudson River and into their rooms in the North Barracks with plans to use the liquor during a party planned for two nights later.

Two nights later, around 10 p.m., the infamous party ensued and went well enough along until around 4 a.m. the cadets got so loud that it woke Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a faculty member who taught military tactics at the school. Hitchcock went upstairs to find half a dozen drunk cadets and a number of others who were passed out. To make matters worse, Hitchcock got into an argument with James “Weems” Berrien, a drunk cadet from Georgia.

Things eventually settled down, and Hitchcock went back to bed, but the party spread throughout the school. Later, Lieutenant William A. Thornton, another staff member at the school, was awoken by loud noise, and when he stepped out of his room, he was attacked by two drunken cadets, including one with a weapon. Thornton placed that cadet under arrest only to be “knocked out” by Roberts, who was from Alabama.

It all went down hill from there as cadets set about looking for a set of drums and a fife, windows got broken out, pistols were fired into Hitchcock’s room and a fistfight ensued. In other words, it was whiskey-fueled chaos.

Order was eventually restored during the next day, and then the fallout began to take place. Estimates say that at least a third of the cadets at the school were involved in some form or fashion, and over $3,000 in property damage was done to the school during the “riot.”

Twenty-two cadets were eventually placed under house arrest and military trials over the incident were held from March 9 through May 3, 1827. Alabama’s representatives in the riot were both expelled. I’m not sure whatever became of Burnley, but Roberts went on to become, in 1841, the Secretary of State of the Republic of Texas.

One interesting side note to all this was that Robert E. Lee was called on to testify at the trial as a witness to the events during the “riot.” In all, 21 cadets were subjected to the trial, and included among their number were two future Confederate generals, a future Governor of Mississippi, and a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Arguably the most famous defendant of them all, however, was young, 18-year-old Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who wasn’t expelled, but went on to graduate in 1828 and served as the U.S. Secretary of War only to become the first, and only, President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

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