Battle of Athens (1946)
Several returning U.S. veterans laid siege to the county jail, after a corrupt sheriff had seized two ballot boxes to try to rig an election. The veterans took the jail using small arms and explosives. As such this is the most recent recorded instance of an armed insurrection against a government on American soil. It also demonstrated the importance of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in preserving American liberty.
- 1 Background
- 2 The GI’s come back
- 3 August 1, 1946: the election
- 4 The battle starts
- 5 The battle ends
- 6 Overwrought reporting
- 7 Film adaptation
- 8 Literary parallel
- 9 References
McMinn County, Tennessee, lies between the cities of Chattanooga and Knoxville, in southeastern Tennessee. Its two main towns are Athens (the county seat) and Etowah. As of the 1940 census, it had a population of 30,781 people.
The following Presidential election results might or might not be significant. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not carry McMinn County in 1932 or 1936. But he did carry the county in 1940 and 1944. He did so by lopsided margins that completely “flipped” in 1948.
The only other Democrats who have carried McMinn County were Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. These two did not carry McMinn County by the lopsided margins FDR enjoyed in 1940 and 1944. (Indeed, Wilson did not even have a majority.) In every other election, McMinn County has voted Republican.
The Paul Cantrell machine
These election results likely represent the influence of Paul Cantrell and the political machine he built. In 1932, Paul Cantrell, of Etowah, Tennessee, and his wealthy relatives took advantage of the economic devastation of the Great Depression. They backed FDR and the New Deal and worked hard to replace Republicans in county government. They succeeded. Paul Cantrell became Sheriff of McMinn County in 1936, and won re-election in 1938 and 1940. The Constitution Society describes his margins of victory as “slim.” But the sudden landslide victories of FDR in 1940 and 1944 suggest that might not have applied to the 1940 election. In 1942, Cantrell sought and won election and re-election to the State Senate. His chief deputy, Pat Mansfield, ran for Sheriff in those two elections and won each time.
The Cantrells and their allies took steps to cement their control. In 1941, Cantrell machine operative and State Representative George Woods proposed “An Act to Redistrict McMinn County” in the Tennessee legislature. It reduced voting precincts from 23 to 12 and reduced Justices of the Peace from 14 to 7. It passed, largely with the aid of the infamous machine of former Mayor E. H. Crump of Memphis, Tennessee. His machine controlled most of Tennessee, including the governor’s office and one of Tennessee’s U.S. Senators.
Shakedowns and election fraud
Sheriff Cantrell also benefited from laws that vested too much power in county sheriffs. The sheriff and his deputies received a fee for every arrest they made. So they would board cross-country buses, drag off sleepy passengers, charge them with public drunkenness, and demand and receive ransoms, i.e., fines, of $16.50 per person for their release. More lucrative were the kickbacks Cantrell and his deputies received from roadhouse owners. The deputies would let the roadhouses operate, but shake down less than influential patrons.
The county court, still under Republican control, ordered the county to purchase Print-O-Matic voting machines. Suspicion had long prevailed that Paul Cantrell had won election in 1936 by swapping out preloaded ballot boxes for the real ones. In response to the order, Mr. Woods introduced another bill to abolish the court. It, too, passed, and the county sold the voting machines.
Outraged citizens petitioned the federal government for oversight of the elections in 1940, 1942, and 1944. The Department of Justice turned a deaf institutional ear. Recall again: FDR carried McMinn County by sudden landslides in 1940 and 1944.
In 1946, Cantrell and Mansfield decided to switch seats. They confidently expected to control this election, as they had controlled elections for ten years.
The GI’s come back
Veterans like William White, Knox Henry, Walter Ellis, and Jim Buttram returned to a town (Athens) they thought they knew, but didn’t. They had their back pay from the Army in their pockets and were used to drinking beer on leave. As such, they made lucrative targets for Pat Mansfield’s deputies. In Bill White’s memoir we read this:
|“|| 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 …
Mansfield’s deputies treated black returnees worse. According to one account, Mansfield and his men were gunning down black veterans out of hand. The spectacle of blacks wearing the uniform surely rankled.
Beginning early in 1946 the veterans began meeting in secret to decide how to challenge the Cantrell-Mansfield machine at the ballot box. In May they had their own political party. Knox Henry stood for sheriff; four other veterans ran for other county offices. The Veterans’ Party ran on a simple but pointed slogan:
|“||Your vote will be counted as cast.||”|
To try to make sure of that, Jim Buttram, campaign manager for the Veterans’ Party, sent two telegrams on 22 July to Governor Jim McCord and U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark. In each, he asked for help in ensuring a fair election. Neither recipient ever answered those telegrams.
As the election approaches...
In keeping with the above, the Veterans’ Party ran this advertisement in the 30 July issue of The Daily Post-Athenian:
|“||These young men fought and won a war for good government. They know what it takes and what it means to have a clean government—and they are energetic enough, honest enough and intelligent enough to give us good, clean government.||”|
In the same issue, the Cantrell-Mansfield machine ran this advertisement:
|“||Look at the facts—and you will vote for the Democratic ticket. The campaign fight is as old as the hills—it is the story of the outs wanting back in.||”|
On 30 July 1946, sheriff’s deputies in a neighboring county arrested two McMinn County deputies and confiscated a shipment of liquor. The two deputies brazenly admitted they were carrying “election whiskey.” Mansfield completely disavowed them.
The Daily Post-Athenian has one item of significance, on 31 July 1946. The Veterans of Foreign Wars post in neighboring Blount County announced they could send 450 veterans to McMinn County at need. This article appeared on the front page, but below, not above, the fold. In any event, Sheriff Mansfield responded by recruiting hundreds of armed deputies from out of county, and some from out of State.
|“||It has come to my attention that certain elements intend to create a disturbance at and around the polls. … In order to see that law and order is maintained … I will have several hundred deputies patrolling the county.||”|
To put matters into perspective, the sheriff had never fielded more than fifteen deputies on election day.
August 1, 1946: the election
Polls opened promptly at 9:00 a.m., to heavier turnout than McMinn County elections had ever seen. Two hundred deputies deployed “to keep order.” (We know this because a surviving audio tape gives that number.) Instead of keeping order, they brazenly intimidated voters whom they observed “voting the wrong way.” This suggests that in McMinn County, in those days, voters lacked the privacy screens they enjoy today.
At either 9:30 a.m. or 10:00 a.m., Walter Ellis, an election judge, protested the obvious intimidation. Mansfield’s deputies summarily arrested him and hauled him off to the county jail. A man named Fred West, of dubious identification, took his place as election judge.
Jim Buttram found 200 GI’s pounding on the door of the L. L. Shaefer jewelry store he was using as an office. He had dire news for them already. He had no answer to his telegrams to Gov. McCord and Attorney General Clark. At that point Otto Kennedy, a friendly political adviser, told them Cantrell had posted armed guards (not sheriff’s deputies) at every voting precinct. At least some veterans called for their fellow GI’s to mobilize and arm themselves. Kennedy offered the use of his Essankay Garage and Tire Shop for a meeting hall.
At 3:00 p.m. the GI’s who had called for mobilization had returned to the Essankay Garage, all armed.
Tom Gillespie, a black farmer, tried to vote at his usual precinct—the 11th, at the Athens Water Works. Windy Wise, one of Cantrell’s guards, hurled a racial slur at him and told him he was voting at the wrong precinct. “I’ve always voted here,” he protested. In response, Wise struck him with brass knuckles. Gillespie dropped his ballot and tried to leave. Wise shot him in the back.
A crowd immediately gathered in front of the Water Works. Pat Mansfield and several deputies loaded Gillespie into Mansfield’s police cruiser and took him to the jail.
Inside the Water Works, Deputy Karl Neil drew his sidearm and ordered five female poll watchers, including Mrs. H. A. Vestal, to leave. They did, under protest. Four GI’s remained to watch the ongoing ballot count: James Edward Vestal (Mrs. Vestal’s son), Charles Scott, Jr., Charles Hyde, and J. P. Cartwright. Neil ordered Hyde and Cartwright to “go up front and sit down,” so they couldn’t see the count. Hyde and Cartwright left the building. Charles Scott, Sr. sent word in to his son and to Ed Vestal: get out for your own safety. Vestal and the younger Scott stayed.
- 3:15 p.m.: Minis Wilburn, an “officer of the election” at Precinct 12 (Dixie Cafe, North White Street), beat GI Election Judge Bob Hairrell. This happened after Hairrell witnessed several voting irregularities, including letting minors vote, and paying cash for votes in full view.
- 3:55 p.m.: Mansfield and his deputies closed Precinct 12 five minutes early. They lifted a car and set it down in front of the door and also blocked the nearby alley with two other cars.
The skirmish at the Water Works
At 4:15 p.m., the sheriff and about twelve deputies arrived at the Water Works precinct to keep everyone away. Inside, Windy Wise ordered Vestal and Scott to sit away from the ballot-count operation, but not to leave the building. In fact, the deputies barricaded Vestal and Scott behind a counter and locked the door. The door was a plate-glass door set in a wooden frame. Vestal and Scott actually broke through this, shoved their way past Windy Wise and his men, and made it outside. Hands high, with Wise’s gun trained on them, they walked across the street and gained the safety of the crowd. They could do this because the crowd were angry and Wise, Neil, and company could not know whether they were armed or not. Furthermore, two newspaper reporters were present, and even Windy Wise would not shoot unarmed men in front of them.
At 4:55 p.m., Chief Deputy Boe Dunn arrived at the Water Works, with two hostages in tow: Felix Harrod and Tom Dooley. Dunn himself appropriated the ballot box and loaded it into his car to take it to the jail. Fifteen deputies aimed their service guns at the crowd as they left.
Prepare for battle
At 5:10 p.m. the G.I.’s gathered at the Essankay Garage. In addition to scouring the county for privately held firearms, they unlocked the State Guard armory. There they acquired three M-1 rifles, five .45 semi-automatic pistols, and 24 British Enfield rifles.
Deputy Dunn made the serious tactical mistake of sending two deputies to the Essankay to arrest the GI’s. When they drew their weapons, the GI’s rushed out of the garage, tackled them, and dragged them inside. There they disarmed them and stripped off their clothes. Two more deputies who tried to reinforce the pair suffered similar capture. Three more deputies came, and the GI’s captured them, too. At 5:30 p.m. some citizen volunteers transported the seven deputies out of the town.
At 6:35 p.m., the sheriff’s men carried the Precinct 12 ballot box into the jail. They already had the Precinct 11 ballot box there, along with several GI’s (including Walter Ellis; see above) whom they held incommunicado and without formal charges.
Between 7:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m., at least five hundred GI’s, all armed, took up station around the jail and on the rooftops of nearby buildings, including the Athens Power Plant. They left one door, at the rear, unguarded, so that those inside could escape with their lives any time they so chose.
Inside, Paul Cantrell, Pat Mansfield, State Rep. Woods, and fifty deputies started “going through the ballot boxes.” Judge Green’s account describes what the GI’s would find later: bunches of blank ballots, and various signs of preparation to burn ballots. These findings alone suggest an attempt to issue a rigged election count.
The battle starts
At about 9:00 p.m., Bill White issued an ultimatum: surrender the ballot boxes, or suffer siege and attack. White confessed later that he fired the shot that started the battle. But the Mobile Federalist Society tells a different account. According to it, Mansfield’s deputies fired first. Three GI’s, trying to warn passers-by of the danger, suffered wounds.
Firing waxed and waned for two hours. During this time, George Woods tried to summon aid from Birch Biggs of Polk County. Biggs ran a machine even more brutal than Cantrell’s. But Biggs would not intervene. Broughton Biggs, Birch’s son, by one account yelled at Woods, “Do you think I’m crazy?” Woods, bearing the sting of that rebuff, slunk out of town – though exactly when he made his escape, no source makes clear.
Mansfield and Cantrell tried to get Governor McCord to mobilize the Tennessee National Guard. Whether McCord issued that order or not, accounts differ. But all agree that the Guard did not engage the veterans. The commandant of the Guard doubtless knew that the sympathies of his force would lie with the ex-GI’s. Why? Because these Guardsmen were ex-GI’s themselves.
The besiegers did not and could not know this, of course. Worse, they had no radios and thus could not co-ordinate their fire. The brick walls of the jail withstood the fusillade. And as any soldier knows, until the enemy surrenders, the battle, and the war, continues.
As the siege dragged on, several soldiers made Molotov cocktails and threw them. These proved ineffective. But at 2:30 a.m., the veterans acquired dynamite. At this time, an ambulance made its way to the jail. The veterans let it pass, thinking it had come to evacuate the wounded. Instead, it evacuated Paul Cantrell and Pat Mansfield. They had just abandoned their command.
The battle ends
At 2:48 a.m., the besiegers threw their dynamite, in sticks with lit fuses. One charge flipped Deputy Dunn’s car over. Another rocked the jailhouse porch on its foundation. A third flipped Pat Mansfield’s car (but of course, Mansfield had abandoned it with his command). A fourth damaged the jailhouse wall.
After that, the deputies, their commanding officers having deserted them, and facing obviously superior forces, surrendered.
The veterans took possession of the ballot boxes. They later certified that the Veterans’ Party had won all five races by 2 to 1 margins.
The townspeople vented their rage on the defeated Cantrell forces. One townsman, whose name appears on no record, slashed Wilburn’s throat. (He would recover—barely.) Anther townsman shot Biscuit Farris, the jail superintendent, in the jaw, shattering it. Several townsmen kicked and beat Windy Wise to unconsciousness. But the GI’s took command of the situation, sent the rioters home, and locked their prisoners in the jail overnight.
In a classic example of "fake news," The New York Times actually reported that the GI’s, or their sympathizers, had slain Sheriff Mansfield. Recall that in fact Mansfield and Cantrell had fled during the battle. In fact, the battle concluded with not a single fatality. (A report by one source, that Tom Gillespie had died of his wound, has no corroboration.)
Knox Henry won election as sheriff. Pat Mansfield resigned his office on 4 August, effective immediately. Knox Henry took his place at once.
In the first days that followed, tensions ran high. The veterans feared a counterattack by forces owned by or loyal to Cantrell. No such attack ever came. They also governed as a vigilance committee to keep rioting and looting from breaking out. That ended with the recognition of Knox Henry as the new sheriff.
The “Boss Crump Machine” suffered blow after blow in the weeks that followed. A new Governor (Gordon Browning) and U.S. Senator (Estes Kefauver) won election that year.
The “fake news” narrative of “lawlessness” by the veterans continued for a full year. In fact, no veteran was ever prosecuted. Windy Wise was sentenced to one to three years for shooting Gillespie.
Sadly, no current resident of Athens, Tennessee, remembers the events of that day. A single plaque commemorates the event. But not a single original structure remains.
In 1992, the Hallmark Hall of Fame released An American Story, a fictionalized account of the Battle of Athens. This project changes most of the names of the characters. It also changes key details of the election and the battle that followed:
- The shooting occurs at a Post Office precinct. The sheriff closes the polls early, an armed GI election judge objects, and a deputy calmly shoots the GI in the right flank. The deputies then remove two ballot boxes from that precinct.
- The chief veteran challenger is running for mayor, not sheriff.
- The first shot at the jail rings out when a deputy leans out of a window and harangues the besiegers. One besieger breaks discipline and fires a shot without orders.
- The veterans manage to get close enough to leave a demolition charge with wires and a detonator.
None of these things occurred as the movie depicts, of course. Nor does the movie depict any of the violent acts on the part of deputies. Perhaps the producers told this tame version of events to avoid lawsuits by any surviving members of the Cantrell, Mansfield, or Woods families.
Hallmark Media did not re-release An American Story. But an organization called the American Movement uploaded the full movie to YouTube.
The only literary parallel to this event, and even this is far from exact, is Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (1959). Heinlein predicts a future in which humanity fights a third world war between a Chinese-dominated axis on one side, and an alliance among Russia, the United Kingdom, and America on the other. At the end of this war comes not mere depression but total social collapse.
Into this obvious power vacuum, step returning veterans from the war. In city after city they set up vigilance committees to stem the rioting and looting they find. They sometimes must hang fellow veterans for taking part in the looting. In the face of that, they refuse to let anyone except returnees serve on their vigilance committees.
|“||Just arbitrary at first. They trusted each other—a bit. They didn’t trust anyone else.||”|
|“||[We’re] not about to let any bleeding, profiteering, black market, double-time-for-overtime, Army-dodging, [unprintable] civilians have any say about it! They’ll do as they’re told, see? While us apes straighten things out!||”|
The behavior of Knox Henry and his fellow returnees in the power vacuum that followed their victory over the Cantrells, closely mirrors this attitude. This suggests that, had law and order collapsed totally, and without the high mutual respect between returnees and townspeople, they might have acted similarly.
Heinlein never once alludes to the Battle of Athens. But the results of his writing are about the same as though he had researched it himself.
- Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History: An Encyclopedia [3 volumes: An Encyclopedia]
- Leip D, Atlas of U.S. Presidential Election Results. Retrieved 1 August 2018. <https://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/>
- The Constitution Society, "The Battle of Athens." Retrieved 1 August 2018. <http://constitution.org/mil/tn/batathen.htm>
- Natural News Blogs, “1946 Battle of Athens, Tennessee, and its Importance Today.” Retrieved 1 August 2018. <https://www.naturalnewsblogs.com/1946-battle-athens-tennessee-importance-today/>
- Seiber L., “The Battle of Athens,” American Heritage. Retrieved 1 August 2018. <https://www.americanheritage.com/content/battle-athens>
- Green M., The Battle of Athens, Tennessee in 1946. YouTube video retrieved 1 August 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmDp882eCd0>
- The federal government remembers the name of Estes Kefauver to this day, having added his name to the Nashville Federal Building.
- An American Story. Directed by John Gray. With Brad Johnson, Kathleen Quinlan, Tom Sizemore, et al. Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions, 1992. <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103673/>
- Viewers can view it here. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6c-Dsg4X4Dk>