- Historic Sites
The Battle Of Athens
The GIs came home to find that a political machine had taken over their Tennessee county. What they did about it astounded the nation.
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
During the Civil War, deep from within secessionist territory, McMinn County had sided with the Union; in 1898 she had declared war on Spain two weeks before Washington got around to it. How could Cantrell have such undisputed control over a county noted for its independent and cantankerous spirit? One answer lies in the Second World War: 3,526 young men, or about 10 percent of McMinn’s population, went off to fight. Most of those left behind—older and perhaps more timid—contributed to the Cantrell machine’s growth by remaining silent. Still, as the war dragged on, people began to tell each other, “Wait until the GIs get back—things will be different.”
In the summer of 1945 veterans began returning home; by 1946 the streets of Athens overflowed with uniforms. The Cantrell forces were not worried.
The more GIs they arrested,” one vet recalled, “the more they beat up, the madder we got.”
Bill White recalled coming home from overseas with mustering-out pay in his pocket: “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 …”
At last the veterans chose to use the most basic right of the democracy for which they had gone to war: the right to vote. In the early months of 1946 they decided in secret meetings to field a slate of their own candidates for the August elections. In May they formed a nonpartisan political party.
As the election approached, there were few overt signs of impending trouble, although to the citizens of McMinn County it was apparent that something had to happen: there was too much at stake on both sides. The Daily Post-Athenian was characteristically silent. The most significant news item appeared on election eve, July 31,1946, at the bottom of page one: VFW members in neighboring Blount County said that four hundred and fifty veterans were ready to respond to any need in McMinn County. Above this was a report that Tony Pierce had killed a muskrat in his front yard.
The veterans fielded candidates for five offices, but interest centered on the race for sheriff between Knox Henry, who had served in the North African campaign, and Paul Cantrell. Since the 1936 election Cantrell had gone on to the legislature as state senator and installed Pat Mansfield as sheriff of McMinn County. A big, jovial sometime engineer for the Louisville & Nashville, Mansfield had done very nicely for himself during his term of office: his four years as sheriff had netted him an estimated $104,000. But now, in 1946, Cantrell was running for sheriff and Mansfield for state senator.
In the final week a flurry of advertisements appeared in the Post-Athenian ; Cantrell enumerated the accomplishments of the Democratic party; Mansfield denied that two men arrested on July 30 with a shipment of liquor were deputies, even though they admitted they were and had been delivering “election whiskey”; downtown merchants announced that all stores would be closed on Election Day to give employees a chance to vote, although this had not been necessary in previous elections (the merchants were perhaps following the example of the mayor of Athens, Paul Walker, who would be vacationing on Election Day); Cantrell warned that the veterans had printed sample ballots with the intention of stuffing ballot boxes; the veterans offered a one-thousand-dollar reward for verifiable information about election fraud and repeated a slogan that for weeks had sounded again and again from their carmounted loudspeakers: YOUR VOTE WILL BE COUNTED AS CAST .
Two days before the election the GIs ran an advertisement in the 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.” A couple of pages farther on, the Democrats had their say: “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.”
The next day, the paper reported that veterans from Blount County had offered to come help watch the polls. Mansfield began building an army of his own. “It has come to my attention,” he announced, “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.” He hired all of them from outside the county, some from out of state. They would crowd inside every voting precinct. And they would be armed.