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The Battle of Athens, Tennessee 1946
The Battle of Athens
The Battle of Athens (sometimes called the McMinn County War) was a rebellion led by citizens in Athens and Etowah, Tennessee, United States, against the local government in August 1946. The citizens, including some World War II veterans, accused the local officials of political corruption and voter intimidation. The event is sometimes cited by firearms ownership advocates as an example of the value of the Second Amendment in combating tyranny.
There had been long-standing concern in McMinn County about political corruption and possible election fraud. At citizen request, the U.S. Department of Justice had investigated allegations of electoral fraud in 1940, 1942, and 1944, but had not taken action. The wealthy Cantrell family essentially ruled the county. Paul Cantrell was elected sheriff in the 1936, 1938, and 1940 elections, then was elected to the state senate in 1942 and 1944, while his former deputy, Pat Mansfield, was elected sheriff. A state law enacted in 1941 had reduced local political opposition by reducing the number of voting precincts from 23 to 12 and reducing the number of justices of the peace from fourteen to seven (including four "Cantrell men"). The sheriff and his deputies operated a fee system under which they received a cut of the money for every person they booked, incarcerated, and released; the more arrests, the more money they made. Often, buses passing through the county were pulled over and the passengers were randomly ticketed for drunkenness, whether guilty or not.
In the August 1946 election, Paul Cantrell was once again a candidate for sheriff, while Pat Mansfield sought the state senate seat. After World War II ended, some 3,000 military veterans (constituting about 10 percent of the county population) had returned to McMinn County. Some of the returning veterans resolved to challenge Cantrell's political control by fielding their own nonpartisan candidates and working for a fraud-free election. Veteran Bill White described the veterans' motivation:
"There were several beer joints and honky-tonks around Athens; we were pretty wild; we started having trouble with the law enforcement at that time because they started making a habit of picking up GIs and fining them heavily for most anything—they were kind of making a racket out of it. After long hard years of service—most of us were hard-core veterans of World War II—we were used to drinking our liquor and our beer without being molested. When these things happened, the GIs got madder—the more GIs they arrested, the more they beat up, the madder we got …"
Combat veteran Knox Henry stood as candidate for sheriff in opposition to Cantrell. In advertisements and speeches the GI candidates promised an honest ballot count and reform of county government. At a rally, a GI speaker said,
"The principles that we fought for in this past war do not exist in McMinn County. We fought for democracy because we believe in democracy but not the form we live under in this county."
The primary election was held on August 1. To intimidate voters, Mansfield brought in some 200 armed "deputies." GI poll-watchers were beaten almost at once. At about 3 p.m., Tom Gillespie, an African-American voter, was told by a sheriff's deputy that he could not vote. Despite being beaten, Gillespie persisted. The enraged deputy shot him. The gunshot drew a crowd. Rumors spread that Gillespie had been shot in the back. He later recovered.
Other deputies detained ex-GI poll-watchers in a polling place, as that made the ballot counting "public." A crowd gathered. Sheriff Mansfield told his deputies to disperse the crowd. When the two ex-GIs smashed a big window and escaped, the crowd surged forward. The deputies, with guns drawn, formed a tight half-circle around the front of the polling place. One deputy, "his gun raised high...shouted: 'If you sons of bitches cross this street I'll kill you!'"
Mansfield took the ballot boxes to the jail for counting. The deputies seemed to fear immediate attack by the "people who had just liberated Europe and the South Pacific from two of the most powerful war machines in human history."
Short of firearms and ammunition, the GIs scoured the county to find them. By borrowing keys to the National Guard and State Guard armories, they got three M1 rifles, five M1911 pistols and 24 M1917 rifles. The armories were nearly empty after the war's end. By 8 p.m. a group of GIs and "local boys" headed for the jail but left the back door unguarded to give the jail's defenders an easy way out.
Three GIs were fired on from the jail. Two were wounded while other GIs returned fire. Firing subsided after 30 minutes; ammunition ran low and night had fallen. Thick brick walls shielded those inside the jail. Absent radios, the GIs' rifle fire was uncoordinated. "From the hillside fire rose and fell in disorganized cascades. More than anything else, people were simply shooting at the jail."
Several who ventured into the street in front of the jail were wounded. One man inside the jail was badly hurt; he recovered. Most sheriff's deputies wanted to hunker down and await rescue. Governor McCord mobilized the State Guard, perhaps to scare the GIs into withdrawing. The State Guard never went to Athens. McCord may have feared that Guard units filled with ex-GIs might not fire on other ex-GIs.
At about 2 a.m. on August 2, the GIs forced the issue. Men from Meigs County threw dynamite sticks and damaged the jail's porch. The panicked deputies surrendered. GIs quickly secured the building. Paul Cantrell faded into the night, having almost been shot by a GI who knew him, but whose pistol had jammed. Mansfield's deputies were kept overnight in jail for their own safety. Calm soon returned. The GIs posted guards. The rifles borrowed from the armory were cleaned and returned before sunup.
In five precincts free of vote fraud, the GI candidate for sheriff, Knox Henry, won 1,168 votes to Cantrell's 789, while other GI candidates won by similar margins. On August 2, a town meeting set up a three-man governing committee. The regular police having fled, six men were chosen to police Etowah. In addition, "Individual citizens were called upon to form patrols or guard groups, often led by a GI... To their credit, however, there is not a single mention of an abuse of power on their behalf." Once the GI candidates' victory had been certified, they cleaned up county government, the jail was fixed, newly elected officials accepted a $5,000 pay limit and Mansfield supporters who resigned were replaced.
The general election on November 5 passed quietly. McMinn County residents, having restored the rule of law, returned to their daily lives. Pat Mansfield moved back to Georgia, and Paul Cantrell set up an auto dealership in Etowah. "Almost everyone who knew Cantrell in the years after the Battle' agree that he was not bitter about what had happened."
The 79th Congress had adjourned on August 2, 1946, when the Battle of Athens ended. However, Representative John Jennings Jr. from Tennessee decried McMinn County's sorry situation under Cantrell and Mansfield and the Justice Department's repeated failures to help the McMinn County residents. Jennings was delighted that "...at long last, decency and honesty, liberty and law have returned to the fine county of McMinn.."
In the media
The 1992 made-for-television movie "An American Story" was based upon the McMinn County War but set in a Texas town in 1945. It was nominated for two 1993 prime time Emmy Awards and one American Society of Cinematographers award.
The Battle of Athens
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