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
The veterans were eager to end the battle. Some of them made Molotov cocktails, others went to the county supply house for dynamite. The gasoline bombs proved ineffective, but at 2:30 A.M. the dynamite arrived. At about this time an ambulance pulled around to the north side of the jail. Assuming it was for the evacuation of the wounded, the veterans let it pass. Two men jumped in, but then, instead of returning to the hospital, the ambulance sped north out of town. The men were Paul Cantrell and Pat Mansfield.
At 2:48 A.M. the first dynamite was tossed toward the jail; it landed under Boe Dunn’s cruiser, and the explosion flipped the vehicle over on its top, leaving its wheels spinning. Three more bundles of dynamite were thrown almost simultaneously; one landed on the jail porch roof, another under Mansfield’s car, and the third struck the jail wall. The explosions rattled windows throughout the town; leaves fell from the trees, debris scattered for blocks, and the jailhouse porch jumped off its foundation. The deputies barricaded in the courthouse a block away rushed onto the balcony, eager to surrender. The jail’s defenders staggered from their ruined stronghold and handed the ballot boxes over to the veterans.
With the Cantrell forces conquered, ten years of suppressed rage exploded. The townspeople set upon the captured deputies and, but for the GIs, probably would have killed them all. Minus Wilburn, a particularly unpopular deputy, had his throat slashed; Biscuit Farris, Cantrell’s prison superintendent, had his jaw shattered by a bullet; and Windy Wise was kicked and beaten senseless. Joined by a number of their fellows, the GIs cleared the jail of the rioters and locked up their prisoners for the night.
At dawn the veterans slipped from the jail, made their way through the detritus of the battle, and dispersed into what they hoped would be anonymity. Miraculously there had been no deaths. But on August 2 a page-one headline in The New York Times wrongly trumpeted the news: TENNESSEE SHERIFF is SLAIN IN PRIMARY DAY VIOLENCE . All day long reporters with cameras and notebooks poured into town to photograph, question, analyze, and write. And every newcomer passed the sign on Highway 11:
The “victory” of the veterans that night in August 1946 appeared, at first, to have settled nothing. The national press was almost unanimous in condemning the action of the GIs. In an editorial perhaps best reflecting the ambivalence of a startled nation, The New York Times concluded: “Corruption, when and where it exists, demands reform, and even in the most corrupt and boss-ridden communities, there are peaceful means by which reform can be achieved. But there is no substitute, in a democracy, for orderly process.” The syndicated columnist Robert C. Ruark commented: “There is very little difference, essentially, between a vigilante and a member of a lynch mob, and if we are seeking an answer to crooked politics, the one that the Athens boys just propounded sure ain’t it.” Commonweal cautiously compared the battle to the American Revolution, then went on to say that “nothing could be more dangerous both for our liberties and our welfare than the making of the McMinn County Revolution into a habit.”
In the early days of August 1946 a power vacuum existed in McMinn County that easily could have spawned anarchy. Armed GIs patrolled streets that were still tense with rumors of a Mansfield army poised to reclaim Athens. Hundreds of men were issued permits to carry weapons, and machine guns on rooftops guarded the approaches to town. Several times groups of veterans rushed to barricade roads and occasionally they terrorized innocent travelers in their attempt to thwart an invasion that never came.
On August 4 Pat Mansfield telegraphed his resignation as sheriff of McMinn County to Governor McCord and requested that Knox Henry fill his unexpired term, which would end on September 1. Henry was appointed immediately, and the next day State Rep. George Woods returned to the county under GI protection to convene the election commission and certify the election. A cheer rang out in the courthouse when Woods rose as the canvass ended and announced that Knox Henry was elected sheriff by a vote of 2,175 to 1,270.
After their victory, GIs with machine guns waited for a Cantrell counterattack.
On August 11, 1946, the five GIs elected to office in McMinn announced that they would return to the county all fees in excess of five thousand dollars. Elsewhere in Tennessee, E. H. Crump and his machine were finally on the way out, with the election of Gov. Gordon Browning and a young United States senator, Estes Kefauver.