The Battle of Athens
How a group of WWII vets armed themselves and took on a corrupt local government and sheriff's department in 1946.
The Bill of Rights was created to protect citizens from potential abuses committed by their government. The Second Amendment was created to provide a means for those citizens to defend themselves.
Plenty of movies and novels have played out the grandiose scenario in which some form of martial law is declared in the U.S. by the government or an invading force (like in the 80s cult classic Red Dawn) often resulting in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian society, so we don’t have to go there. Suffice to say, this is a very specific and fairly unlikely scenario (but not impossible).
The fact of the matter is, armed American citizens have taken on their government many times in the past, but the events tend to be much more low-key than what makes for good movie fodder. As such, those very real stories tend to get glossed over and forgotten as time goes on.
The following is one of those stories from 1946. It is the tale of a group of World War II veterans who came back from the wars in Europe and the Pacific—from securing our democracy overseas—only to find it threatened in their own backyard.
This is the story of the “Battle of Athens” which took place in McMinn County, Tennessee, fought between a gang of corrupt local law enforcement officers and some fed-up local GIs who refused to be pushed around by corrupt people in power.
SETTING THE STAGE
Edward Hull Crump effectively was politics in Tennessee for the first half of the 20th century. Known as “Boss,” he served two terms as a Representative in the House and was the Mayor of Memphis for three terms. He established a political machine that gave him tremendous power, leading him to have the final say on who became the new mayor from 1915 up through 1954.
Crump’s influence helped get Paul Cantrell elected as Sheriff of McMinn County, which included the relatively small town of Athens.
Cantrell was elected Sheriff in 1936, 1938, and 1940. In 1941, George Woods—a close associate of Cantrell’s—was elected to the state legislature. There, he introduced a bill to redistrict McMinn County. When it was signed into law, the county had been reduced from 23 voting precincts to just 12, and the number of justices of the peace was slashed from 14 to seven.
Four of the justices were open supporters of Cantrell. This helped solidify the control of Crump, Cantrell, and others.
After Cantrell’s initial election, he took advantage of Crump’s sanctioned corruption and ensured his own reelection in later years by removing ballot boxes from the polling places and having them all counted by his men at the jail in Athens. Any poll workers who weren’t part of the political machine were forcefully removed from their posts.
Local law enforcement practices, influenced by Crump, stand at the heart of the impending conflict. They established a fee-based system of compensation for law enforcement. They were essentially paid on commission.
This meant the more people an officer cited for one offense or another, the more money he would make. In order to collect their fee, the officers needed only to present a voucher to the courthouse that had been signed by the sheriff—in this case, Paul Cantrell.
One popular method of collecting “fines” was to stop charter buses passing through Athens and randomly arrest people and fine them $16.50 for drunkenness, whether they actually were or not. At one point, reports indicate that arrests topped 115 people in a single weekend.
An easier way for the deputies to get paid, however, was through straightforward bribes from club owners. If the owners let the officers shake down most of the people in their clubs, then the authorities would overlook the steady stream of unlicensed liquor, gambling, and rampant prostitution happening in the establishments.
In 1942, after six years as sheriff, Cantrell was elected to the state senate. His loyal deputy, Pat Mansfield, was—unsurprisingly—elected to fill the vacant sheriff’s position.
Corruption in McMinn County was an open secret, but it was deemed too powerful to stop by many. Reports from the Department of Justice reveal that three separate investigations into election fraud were launched in 1940, 1942, and 1944, but none ever reached a resolution.
Then, things began to change.
THE TROOPS COME HOME
At the end of World War II, more than 3,000 GIs returned from service and came home to Athens. Their numbers equalled about 10 percent of the city’s entire population, which had the potential to create a shift in voter demographics.
Many of the veterans had a decent bit of money, by local standards, from mustering out, and the mostly young men spent it freely at the local bars and gambling halls. The county’s law enforcement officers didn’t see a potential political upset; instead, they saw easy, and flush, targets for more arrests and fees. So, they began arresting veterans and fining them at every opportune moment.
During a veteran’s history interview in 2000, Bill White, one of the veterans, was asked why they took action. He replied: “We knew that there was something bad wrong when we got back over here. And what was wrong was, we had no freedom. We were over there fighting, and being killed every day for freedom, and we didn’t have none.”
The GI Non-Partisan League
A group of veterans banded together and decided they would defeat the political machine the way rational, law-abiding people are supposed to do it: in the voting booth.
By May, the group had formed the GI Non-Partisan League and selected a diverse slate of candidates who they felt had the best chances of winning various offices throughout the county in the August election. True to their non-partisan name, the five candidates included three Republicans and two Democrats.
The election of August 1946 epitomized the corruption in Tennessee politics at the time.
Pat Mansfield had taken to the corruption with ease after taking over as sheriff, making a staggering $104,000 in his first four-year term. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $1.35 million in today’s dollars.
Both Sheriff Pat Mansfield and State Representative (and former sheriff) Paul Cantrell were up for re-election. The two men decided to switch things around, with Cantrell running again for sheriff and Mansfield running for his first term as a state representative. Either way, both men knew the political machine would make it happen.
The goal of the GI Non-Partisan League was crystal clear, as was demonstrated by their campaign slogan: “Your Vote Will Be Counted As Cast.”
Supporters drove around town and made announcements about the candidates and repeated the slogan over loudspeakers mounted to their cars.
When the men started hanging posters and signs around town, Sheriff Mansfield’s deputies tore them down and beat up the GIs. Despite the abuse, the veterans refused to back down.
Mansfield must have realized he would be up against an opposition the likes of which had never been seen in McMinn County. To help ensure his victory, he paid 200 deputies from neighboring counties $50 per day to help keep an eye on things. These deputies had been instructed to put ballots in the boxes before voting began, to engage in armed intimidation tactics at the polling places, and to ensure that the ballot boxes made it back to the local jail where, away from prying eyes, the votes could be counted to ensure the right candidates won.
On election day, August 1, 1946, an unprecedented number of voters turned out to the polls.
Trouble started early: by 9:30 a.m., a legally appointed poll watcher—and supporter of the GI Non-Partisan League—Walter Ellis had been arrested by Mansfield’s men and thrown in jail because he tried to protest irregularities he observed at his station.
Telegrams had been sent to both the governor of Tennessee and the United States Attorney General, asking for assistance with election proceedings. The telegrams went unanswered; help was not coming.
The veterans were informed that Mansfield had placed armed guards at every polling location to ensure a swift transportation of the ballot boxes to the local jail. That’s when a subset of the men decided to arm themselves and prepare for the possibility of a full on confrontation with the deputies.
At 3 p.m., while most of the GIs had gathered at a local tire shop, armed with an assortment of firearms and ready for what was to come, a crucial event took place.
Tom Gillespie, an African-American man who was registered to vote, tried to cast his ballot in the 11th Precinct. Deputy C. M. “Windy” Wise told Gillespie that he couldn’t vote there. When Gillespie protested, Wise beat him with a pair of brass knuckles.
Fearing for his life, Gillespie dropped his ballot and ran. As he fled, Wise pulled his revolver and shot him in the back. Gillespie’s wound wasn’t fatal, but instead of being taken to the hospital for treatment, the officers scooped him up and took him to jail.
Around the same time as Gillespie’s attack, GI poll watchers in the 12th Precinct had seen one of the sheriff’s men, Minus Wilburn, allowing unregistered adults and minors to vote. They even saw him handing out cash to adult voters in an attempt to get them to vote the “right way.”
By 3:45 p.m., the GIs were fed up with the voter intimidation, attempted murder, and outright fraud that they had seen. It was decided that they were going to take action all throughout the town. At the 12th Precinct, one of the GIs protested the voter bribery; he was struck on the head by Wilburn and then kicked in the face when he fell down.
Elsewhere in Athens, the GIs and their supporters managed to gain the upper hand on seven deputies. They were apprehended and held hostage inside the GI party headquarters. In an attempt to give the officers a taste of their own medicine, the GIs loaded the men into their cars and drove them out to the woods, where they beat them and then chained them to the trees to keep them from coming back to town.
Immediately, the polling place was closed. The ballot box was whisked away to the jail, along with the beaten poll watcher who had been taken hostage.
THE LAST STRAW AND A VISIT TO THE ARMORY
By 6 p.m., Bill White knew that he and the other GIs would be the last line of defense for their local democracy. If they were going to keep the political machine from rigging another election, they would have to take action.
To do so, they would all need to be well armed.
A group of men, led by Bill White, headed to the local National Guard armory and proceeded to grab all of the guns and ammo they could find. They loaded up a two-ton truck with 70 rifles, two Thompson submachine guns, countless bandoliers of .30-06 ammunition, as well as .45 ACP ammo for the Thompsons—all gear with which they were intimately acquainted.
While the accounts do not say specifically, it is safe to assume that the rifles were most likely M1 Garands and Springfield 03A3 rifles, as they are both chambered for the .30-06 cartridge—the same as the ammo bandoliers they took.
When White and the others got back to the GI’s headquarters, the rifles and ammunition were distributed with each man getting one rifle and one bandolier of ammo. With everyone sufficiently armed, they still had some leftover ammo.
At 9 p.m., approximately 50 deputies stood guard outside of the jail. Inside were Cantrell, Mansfield, and State Representative George Woods, who had gotten the county redistricted a handful of years earlier. Woods and Mansfield were part of the election commission, which meant there was enough of a commission majority present to count the ballots and sign off on the results without having to confer with anyone outside of the building.
THE BATTLE BEGINS
Split into two groups, White and the other men descended on the jail. Some stood in the street and others gathered on an embankment right across the street. The GIs issued an ultimatum to the sheriff and his men in the jail. Bring out the ballot boxes or be fired upon. No one came out of the jail.
Gunfire erupted and what would be known as the Battle of Athens began and would rage for hours. The veterans fired endlessly on the sheriff and his deputies, but they couldn’t breach the walls of the jail. Conversely, the deputies were proving to be no match for the recently returned war veterans.
As the battle drug on, the veterans were getting desperate. They had begun throwing Molotov cocktails, but all they accomplished with this was the destruction of cars on the street. Then, at 2:30 a.m., a secret weapon arrived: dynamite.
The first bundle of dynamite landed under a police car. The charge blew it sky high and it landed on its side. Three more bundles were thrown simultaneously. One landed under the sheriff’s car, one on the roof of the jail’s porch, and one hit the jail wall.
That final bundle sealed the deal and blew a hole in the building. At 3 a.m., the deputies in the jail came out, surrendered, and handed over the ballot boxes.
The veterans rounded up all of the crooked deputies and, after releasing the poll watchers, locked the deputies in the jail. Despite all of the carnage, no one was killed on either side.
There were, however, some injuries. Minus Wilburn, who had been paying voters at the 12th Precinct, had his throat slashed but survived. Prison Superintendent Biscuit Farris suffered a shattered jaw from a bullet, and Deputy Wise, who shot Tom Gillespie, was summarily beaten by many in the crowd.
At 7:05 a.m., Paul Cantrell sent word that he was conceding the sheriff’s race. With that, Knox Henry, the GI Non-Partisan League’s candidate, had been elected sheriff in the first honest election in Athens in a decade.
The final vote tally was 2,175 to 1,270. The four other candidates in the GI’s party also won their races fair and square.
Even though hostilities had ceased, the city of Athens was still uneasy. Rumors swirled that Mansfield was planning an attack to retake the town. As a result, GIs performed armed patrols in town, machine gunners were placed on rooftops at the edges of town, and hundreds of men received permits to carry concealed firearms.
No retaliation from the corrupt political machine ever materialized.
None of the GIs faced legal repercussions for their actions. For that matter, almost all of the deputies got away scott free, too. All except for Deputy Wise, who received a sentence of one to three years in prison for shooting, but not killing, Tom Gillespie.
At the end of the day, the firearms used to defend the town were returned to the National Guard armory, the machine gunners left their posts, and the armed patrols came to an end.
The battle of Athens concluded with democracy carrying the day, made possible by a group of citizens who chose to arm themselves against a corrupt local government.
The Athens Mindset
When the Battle of Athens occurred, the American people had just emerged from a global conflict that was waged against government overreach and subjugation. The atrocities that occur when that overreach goes unchecked were fresh in the minds of American citizens.
The memory of Prohibition was also still fresh in the minds of Americans who had seen what happens when local law enforcement and government officials are complicit regarding illegal activity.
The collective mindset was that Americans weren’t going to be pushed around by those in power. As such, it came as a natural reaction for the recently-returned soldiers in Athens to once again take up arms against the overreach and subjugation of their local elected officials.
Centuries of Precedent
As far back as 1693, militia laws in the American Colonies called for all able-bodied men to own, or have public access to, a firearm and at least 20 rounds of ammunition.
Because guns were expensive in the 17th century, provisions were made in many places for the local government to have a supply of arms and ammunition available for use by the militia. This ensured that everyone was given access to the best equipment available in defense of the common good.
The battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 were preceded by the Colonial Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, ordering that barrels of gunpowder stored in the public magazine in Williamsburg was to be removed and made inaccessible. He also ordered the lock mechanisms removed from the muskets that were stored there, making them inoperable.
His reasoning is clear. In Dunmore’s own words:
“The Series of Dangerous Measures pursued by the People of this Colony against Government, which they have now entirely overturned, & particularly their having come to a Resolution of raising a Body of armed Men in all the Counties, made me think it prudent to remove some gunpowder which was in a Magazine in this Place, where it lay exposed to any Attempt that might be made to seize it, & I had Reason to believe the People intended to take that step.”
Basically, Dunmore knew that power lay with those who have arms and ammunition, and he wanted to prevent the colonial subjects from having access to that power.
The local law enforcement in Athens had the same mentality. That was made clear by their armed presence at polling stations and the attempted murder of Tom Gillespie, an unarmed citizen who was simply attempting to exercise his right to vote.
Dunmore’s fear of a body of armed men rising up in the 1700s is essentially the same thing that happened in Athens when the GIs went into the National Guard armory and commandeered 70 rifles, two Tommy guns, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
Technology and Tactics
Think about the time and place of this event. It’s rural Tennessee, right after World War II. Without a doubt, not all of those men owned a gun. Or, if they did, it may have been outdated or a simple shotgun or maybe a bolt action rifle or an old lever gun. This is proven with one of the photos from the event where a GI is shown aiming a double-barrel shotgun.
However, these recently-returned veterans were well-versed in the latest military technologies, which included the M1 Garand semi-automatic .30-06 rifle and the Thompson submachine gun. Having been in battle, they knew the importance of fielding adequate firepower against an enemy.
The Thompson was a popular choice of law enforcement officials at this time, so it is only natural that the GIs would have grabbed those same guns and every other available means of protection from the armory.
It’s also important to note that after everything came to an end in Athens, the firearms taken from the National Guard armory were returned. The GIs had no illusions that those guns now belonged to them. They were “necessary for the security of a free State.”
Fighting for Basic Rights
Many instances of organized defense against local government were also seen after the Battle of Athens during the Civil Rights era.
The Deacons for Defense and Justice, founded in 1964, were a group of armed citizens who sought to protect themselves and others from violence inflicted upon them by the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement officers who were taking advantage of the discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the south.
The Black Panthers are another example. When created in 1966, the organization’s original purpose was to provide armed citizen patrols to guard against local police brutality. In fact, a number of modern federal gun control laws were created in direct response to the Panthers exercising their Second Amendment rights.
WHY THE BATTLE OF ATHENS MATTERS TODAY
The interpretation of the laws and amendments surrounding the ownership of firearms and the rights of the people to own them is more hotly debated today than at any other time in American history.
In many ways, America in the 21st century is both very different and very similar to how it was in 1946.
However, much of The Greatest Generation who saw the effects of government run amok in Europe are no longer around to caution against its repeat.
It seems that today many believe the government always has their best interests in mind, and that it is responsible for their safety and well-being on a daily basis. As such, they think law enforcement personnel should be the only armed people in our society.
There is, however, an equally large population of American citizens who realize the government can be corrupted and know that they themselves are always the last line of defense. History has shown time and time again around the world that an armed resistance is often the final option for people to avoid being abused by their elected officials and the agents they command—a lesson a newly born United States and the British learned back in the 1770s.
The vast majority of Americans who believe in and exercise their Constitutional right to keep and bear arms do not wish for some opportunity take up arms against the Federal government, the U.S. Army, or the local police department. Armed conflict on any scale is typically devastating to all parties involved.
Instead, they recognize the most likely type of conflict requiring armed action would take place much like it did in Athens so many decades ago, out of desperation when the system fails—a last resort, but a powerful one.
The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution exists to protect citizens from corrupt government on all levels. The events in Athens, Tennessee, in 1946 show that not only is such protection sometimes necessary, but that it can also be very effective.