- 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
In McMinn County, Tennessee, in the early 1940s, the question was not if you farmed, but where you farmed. Athens, the county seat, lay between Knoxville and Chattanooga along U.S. Highway 11, which wound its way through eastern Tennessee. This was the meeting place for farmers from all the surrounding communities. Traveling along narrow roads planted with signs urging them to “See Rock City” and “Get Right with God,” they would gather on Saturdays beneath the courthouse elms to discuss politics and crops. There were barely seven thousand people in Athens, and many of its streets were still unpaved. The two “big” cities some fifty miles away had not yet begun their inevitable expansion, and the farmers’ lives were simple and essentially unaffected by what they would have called the “modern world.” Many of them were without electricity. The land, their families, religion, politics, and the war dominated their talk and thoughts. They learned about God from the family Bible and in tiny chapels along yellow-dust roads. Their newspaper, the Daily Post-Athenian , told them something of politics and war, but since it chose to avoid intrigue or scandal, a story that smacked of both could be found only in the conversations of the folks who milled about the courthouse lawn on Saturdays.
Since the Civil War, political offices in McMinn County had gone to the Republicans, but in the 1930s Tennessee began to fall under the control of Democratic bosses. To the west, in Shelby County, E.H. Crump, the Memphis mayor who had been ousted during his term for failing to enforce Prohibition, fathered what would become the state’s most powerful political machine. Crump eventually controlled most of Tennessee along with the governor’s office and a United States senator. In eastern Tennessee local and regional machines developed, which, lacking the sophistication and power of a Crump, relied on intimidation and violence to control their constituents.
In 1936 the system descended upon McMinn County in the person of one Paul Cantrell, the Democratic candidate for sheriff. Cantrell, who came from a family of money and influence in nearby Etowah, tied his campaign closely to the popularity of the Roosevelt administration and rode FDR’s coattails to victory over his Republican opponent.
Fraud was suspected—to this day many Athens citizens firmly believe that ballot boxes were swapped—but there was no proof. Over the following months and years, however, those who questioned the election would see their suspicions vindicated. The laws of Tennessee provided an opportunity for the unscrupulous to prosper. The sheriff and his deputies received a fee for every person they booked, incarcerated, and released; the more human transactions, the more money they got. A voucher signed by the sheriff was all that was needed to collect the money from the courthouse. Deputies routinely boarded buses passing through and dragged sleepy-eyed passengers to the jail to pay their $16.50 fine for drunkenness, whether they were guilty or not. Arrests ran as high as 115 per weekend. The fee system was profitable, but record-keeping was required, and the money could be traced. It was less troublesome to collect kickbacks for allowing roadhouses to operate openly. Cooperative owners would point out influential patrons. They were not bothered, but the rest were subject to shakedowns. Prostitution, liquor, and gambling grew so prevalent that it became common knowledge in Tennessee that Athens was “wide open.”
Encouraged by his initial success, Cantrell began what would become a tenyear reign as the king of McMinn politics. In subsequent elections, ballot boxes were collected from the precincts and the results tabulated in secret at McMinn County Jail in Athens. Opposition poll watchers were labeled as troublemakers and ejected from precinct houses.
The 1940 election sent George Woods, a plump and affable Etowah crony of Cantrell, to the state legislature. Woods promptly introduced “An Act to Redistrict McMinn County.” It reduced the number of voting precincts from twenty-three to twelve and cut down the number of justices of the peace from fourteen to seven. Of these seven, four were openly Cantrell men. When Gov. Prentice Cooper signed Woods’s bill into law on February 15, 1941, effective Republican opposition died in McMinn County.
McMinn County Court, which was still dominated by Republicans, directed the county to purchase voting machines. The Cantrell Democrats countered by having Woods get a bill passed in Nashville abolishing the court and then selling the machines to “save the county money.” Department of Justice records show investigations of electoral fraud in McMinn County in 1940, 1942, and 1944 —all without resolution.
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.
August 1, 1946: Election Day found voters lined up early in the largest turnout in local history. Joining them were some three hundred of Sheriff Mansfield’s special deputies. Trouble began early. At 9:30 A.M. Walter Ellis, a legally appointed GI representative at the first precinct in the courthouse, was arrested and jailed for protesting irregularities.
Sirens wailed throughout the morning, and police cruisers were seen speeding toward the jail. GIs began gathering on Washington Street outside L. L. Shaefer’s jewelry store, which served as an office for their campaign manager, Jim Buttram, who had seen action in Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Normandy. Above the door a sign read: “Phone 787, Jim Buttram,” the number to which voters were to report election fraud. Only after prolonged pounding did a harried Buttram cautiously open the door to his comrades. As more than two hundred GIs filled the small store, the somber mood of their leader told them they were in trouble. He showed them copies of two telegrams dated July 22: one he had addressed to Gov. Jim McCord, Nashville, Tennessee; the other to Att. Gen. Tom Clark, Washington, D.C. They requested assistance to ensure a fair election. Neither had been answered.
Otto Kennedy, not an ex-GI himself but a political adviser to the veterans, entered the office and announced that Cantrell had posted armed guards at each precinct. They all knew that this move was in preparation for the 4:00 P.M. poll closings when the ballot boxes would be moved to the jail for counting. A small group of the veterans demanded an armed mobilization and called for a leader. Buttram declined. So did Kennedy, but he offered the rear of his Essankay Garage and Tire Shop across the street as a meeting hall.
The group crossed the street, held a meeting, and agreed that those who did not have weapons should get them and return as quickly as possible.
By 3:00 P.M. most were back at the Essankay and most were armed. At about this time, Tom Gillespie, an elderly black farmer from Union Road, stepped inside the eleventh-precinct polling place in the Athens Water Works on Jackson Street. Windy Wise, a Cantrell guard, told Gillespie, “Nigger, you can’t vote here.” When Tom protested, Wise struck him with brass knuckles. Gillespie dropped his ballot and ran for the door. Wise pulled a pistol and shot him in the back as he reached the sidewalk.
The crowd began to demand the lives of the captives; some veterans agreed.
The first shot of the day brought crowds streaming up Jackson from the courthouse. Sheriff Mansfield’s cruiser turned off College Street and screeched to a halt in front of the Water Works, and deputies loaded the bleeding Gillespie into the car. Mansfield ordered the precinct closed, posted four deputies outside to guard the Water Works, and then took Gillespie to jail. A dozen veterans from the Essankay started up Jackson toward the Water Works. They were unarmed.
During the confusion following the shooting, the two GI poll watchers, Ed Vestal and Charles Scott, had been seized and held hostage inside the Water Works by Wise and another Cantrell deputy, Karl Neil. When the veterans reached the Water Works, the crowd began taunting the armed guards. As Wise and Neil stood at a window watching the angry throng outside, Vestal and Scott plunged through the plate-glass windows and ran bleeding for the protection of the crowd. Wise stepped through the broken glass, waving his pistol; several veterans rushed forward but were quickly pulled back to safety. One of them shouted, “Let’s go get our guns!” and they left for the Essankay.
In the meantime Chief Deputy Boe Dunn had his men form a cordon from the building to his cruiser, and the ballot box was carried out to the car. Wise told Dunn about the GIs’ threat; the chief deputy ordered two of his men to GI headquarters to arrest those whom Wise could identify. The rest of the deputies piled into the cruiser, which sped back toward the jail.
When the two deputies reached the GI headquarters, they were disarmed and taken prisoner; so were two others sent later as reinforcements. A crowd began to gather outside; three more deputies came with pistols drawn, only to be pummeled and dragged inside. The crowd began to demand the lives of the captives; some of the veterans agreed. This talk alarmed Otto Kennedy, and he left, vowing to have no part in murder. The crowd began to disperse, and most of the GIs left; soon a small nucleus of veterans was alone with seven hostages. The veterans took the hostages to the woods, ten miles out of town, beat them, and shackled them to trees.
A polling place for the twelfth precinct had been set up in the back of the Dixie Cafe, across Hornsby Alley from the jail, and it was commanded by Minus Wilburn for Cantrell. Bob Hairrell and Leslie Dooley, who had lost an arm in North Africa, were assigned as the Gl poll watchers. Throughout the day they had observed Wilburn letting minors vote and handing cash to adult voters. At 3:45 P.M., when Wilburn attempted to allow a young woman to vote despite the fact that she had no poll-tax receipt and that her name did not appear on the registration list, Hairrell’s patience gave out. As Wilburn reached to deposit the ballot, Hairrell grabbed his wrist. Wilburn slapped him across the head with a blackjack and kicked him in the face as he fell to the floor. Then he closed the precinct, ordered Hornsby Alley blocked at both ends, and, with a procession of guards, crossed the lawn to the jail with the ballot box and the GIs as captives.
The Cantrell forces had calculated that if they could control the first, eleventh and twelfth precincts in Athens and the one in Etowah, the election was theirs. The ballot boxes from the Water Works (the eleventh) and the Dixie Cafe (the twelfth) were safely in the jail. The voting place for the first precinct, the courthouse, was barricaded by deputies who held four GIs hostage, and Paul Cantrell himself had Etowah under control.
By 6:00 P.M. it seemed to be over. GI headquarters was deserted, and unhappy crowds moved quietly along the streets. Another election had been stolen, and nothing could be done about it.
At the Strand Movie Theater across from the courthouse, the marquee read: “Coming Soon: Gunning for Vengeance.”
Bill White, who had fought in the Pacific while still in his teens and come home an ex-sergeant, had gotten angrier as the day wore on. At two in the afternoon he had harangued the group of veterans in the Essankay, saying: “You call yourselves GIs—you go over there and fight for three and four years—you come back and you let a bunch of draft dodgers who stayed here where it was safe, and you were making it safe for them, push you around. … If you people don’t stop this, and now is the time and place, you people wouldn’t make a pimple on a fighting GI’s ass. Get guns…”
In the early evening White went to get the guns himself. He sent two GIs to get a truck and, with a few other veterans, perhaps a dozen, he headed for the National Guard armory. There, he said in a 1969 interview, he “broke down the armory doors and took all the rifles, two Thompson sub-machine guns, and all the ammunition we could carry, loaded it up in the two-ton truck and went back to GI headquarters and passed out seventy high-powered rifles and two bandoleers of ammunition with each one.” By 9:00 P.M. Paul Cantrell, Pat Mansfield, State Rep. George Woods, who was also a member of the election commission, and about fifty deputies were locked inside the jail and going through the ballot boxes. The presence of Mansfield and Woods meant that a majority of the election commission was on hand, so the tallies could be certified and validated on the spot. More deputies were still barricaded in the courthouse, but along the streets none were to be seen. If the Cantrell forces had been a bit more wary, they might have spotted some shadows slipping up the embankment directly across the street from the jail.
Opinion differs on exactly how the challenge was issued. White says he was the one to call it out: “Would you damn bastards bring those damn ballot boxes out here or we are going to set siege against the jail and blow it down!” Moments later the night exploded in automatic weapons fire punctuated by shotgun blasts. “I fired the first shot,” White claimed, “then everybody started shooting from our side.” A deputy ran for the jail. “I shot him; he wheeled and fell inside of the jail.” Bullets ricocheted up and down White Street. “I shot a second man; his leg flew out from under him, and he crawled under a car.” The veterans bombarded the jail for hours, but Cantrell and his accomplices, secure behind the red-brick walls, refused to surrender. As the uncertain battle dragged past midnight, the GIs began to have some uneasy second thoughts. They knew that they had violated local, state, and federal laws that night, and if Cantrell was not routed before his rescuers arrived, they might spend the rest of their lives in prison. Rumors compounded their fears: “The National Guard is on the way!” “The state troopers are here!” “Birch Biggs and his gang are coming!” (Biggs ran Polk County more ruthlessly than Cantrell ran McMinn.)
If the veterans had known the truth, they would have been less apprehensive. George Woods had telephoned Biggs earlier that night for help. Biggs was not there, but his son, Broughton, took the call. His answer: “Do you think I’m crazy?” Woods then slipped out of town.
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.
For a full year afterward the national press seized upon the most insignificant news from Athens as evidence of the veterans’ “lawlessness.” There was, indeed, remarkably little criminal prosecution in the wake of that violent night. Only one man had charges brought against him: Windy Wise, the deputy who shot the old black farmer, Tom Gillespie, drew a sentence of one to three years.
As for the larger results of the Athens rebellion, the GIs universally hailed the return of the “independent vote” to the community and the election of “fine people” to lead it. The national press continued to show interest in what had happened (the best, if incomplete, account of it at the time was a Harper’s article by Theodore White).
Finally, on the first anniversary of the violent election, the Times reported, “Today it appears that this political coalition of World War II veterans for direct action in community affairs, which many at the time regarded as a factor likely to develop nationally in the postwar period, was purely [a] local phenomenon in which veteran participation was incidental.” With this epilogue the press turned away from tiny Athens.
Knox Henry served two terms as sheriff of McMinn County and was succeeded by Otto Kennedy. Paul Cantrell, after seeking temporary asylum in Chattanooga, returned to Etowah and continued to operate the bank there with his brothers. They are all dead now, as is Jim Buttram. Otto Kennedy still lives in Athens. Pat Mansfield returned secretly to Athens on August 8, 1946, to resign his membership on the election commission. He met with Otto Kennedy for two hours, apparently with no ill feeling on either side, and then announced: “I’m through with politics for good. It’ll sure mess you up sometimes. I’m going back to railroading.”
Athens has not changed that much in forty years. There is a new courthouse, an imposing structure that is too large for its site. The old one burned down during renovations in 1964. Farmers no longer gather on the square; there is no place for them. An effort at downtown renovation can only be described as timid, a cautious imitation of similar projects in the larger cities. They have a new jail, an austere building that seems to embody the adage that crime does not pay. The Daily Post-Athenian is alive and well and still comfortably middle-of-the-road.
In the mid-fifties Athens was isolated by a new highway that intercepts Highway 11 south of Niota and rejoins it at Riceville. Along it a new Athens grew, a town of McDonald’s, Kawasaki, and Pizza Hut. If you ask people along the street about the election of August 1946, they will point up White Street and mumble something vague about a shoot-out. There are no signs or monuments to commemorate the event; people have forgotten or do not wish to remember. But the graying manager of a local store, a friendly sort and so gentle with his grandchildren, squeezed off round after round at the jail that night. And the driver snoozing behind the wheel of his cab, not really caring whether he catches a fare or not, helped wrap and toss the deadly bundles of dynamite that sailed through the night air. You can bet they remember.