The Battle of Athens: When Veterans Took Up Arms to Oust a Corrupt Government

The year is 1946 and change is in the air. This is true in a particularly unique way in McMinn County, Tennessee. Although the county had historically been Republican, being in Eastern Tennessee between Chattanooga and Knoxville, the Great Depression resulted in substantial gains for Democrats. One of these was the election of Sheriff Paul Cantrell in 1936, who ran on FDR’s coattails. He proceeded to create a Democratic machine in the county that in order to keep power relied on, as Lones Seiber (1985) put it, “intimidation and violence” (1). Previous sheriffs had not used their position to create such a machine. There was also a suspicion that ballot stuffing had been used to win this election, but at the time there was no proof. Evidence of corruption in Cantrell’s rule became apparent in the following years.


The Cantrell-Mansfield Machine: Mind-Blowing Corruption


To call the Cantrell-Machine “corrupt” seems to fall short of accurately conveying the scale of what was happening in McMinn County. The law in Tennessee provided incentives for arrests and short-term jailing. As Lones Seiber (1985) writes, “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” (1). The machine also squeezed protection money from numerous illegal establishments, such as casinos and brothels.


Cantrell would be reelected in 1938 and 1940, and in 1942 he would be elected to the Tennessee Senate where he would continue to run the machine and was a delegate to the 1944 Democratic National Convention. Under his replacement as sheriff, Pat Mansfield, things got much worse. The sheriff’s department employed some as deputies who had been known criminals. The worst case was perhaps the employment of a deputy who had murdered his own father and would later murder his pregnant sister-in-law (Kumar). There was also the employment of “siren bandits”. These were men in uniform who would pull over and outright rob passing motorists (Kumar). This contributed to the lavish salaries Cantrell, Mansfield, and other major machine men got. Cantrell himself over his time as sheriff commanded an annual salary of almost $60,000, the equivalent of over $1 million in today’s money (Kumar). Mansfield himself commanded a salary higher than that of the Vice President of the United States. The conditions of the Athens jail, where people would go for charges real and fabricated for the profit of the machine, were dreadful and not maintained as the money appropriated to maintain it and properly feed inmates had been pocketed by Sheriff Mansfield (Kumar). In one incident, after Cantrell double-crossed one of his cronies, he decided to spill the beans. This resulted in his father being robbed and arrested and his brother-in-law being subjected to an assassination attempt by a deputy in broad daylight (Kumar).


Curbing the Republican Opposition


Eastern Tennessee, as I wrote before, was typically and is today a Republican place, and overtime there was a growing risk of McMinn County reverting to its old ways. The Cantrell-Mansfield machine sought to prevent such an eventuality by both means illegal and legal. The illegal ways would be fraud and intimidation through stuffing ballot boxes as well as telling seniors that their pensions may be held up if they didn’t vote the correct way. On the legal side, Cantrell got the help of his crony in the state legislature George Woods. In 1941, Woods proposed legislation to restrict McMinn County’s voting precincts from 23 to 12 and justices of the peace from 14 to 7, making the justices of the peace majority Cantrell men (Seiber, 1). This was signed into law by Governor Prentice Cooper. The Cantrell machine had other tricks to limit Republican opposition as well; after the Republican dominated McMinn County Court instructed the county to purchase voting machines, Woods got Governor Cooper to sign another bill into law, which abolished the court, with the machines sold under the guise of economy (Seiber, 1).


The Citizens Attempt Lawful Recourse


The residents did not complain to the local or state authorities as they knew they would side with the machine, so they wrote complaints to the Justice Department on the abuses of the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. One letter from a hardware store owner read, “The good people of this county are sacrificing for the cause of America’s freedom but have lost their freedom at home. Both parties have lost the freedom of the ballot box, a dictatorship has been set up, the county treasury is being raided at the expense of the taxpayers, and the good people of this county would like to sell their property and move away. Your department is our last line of defense. Please, for God’s sake come to the rescue of a helpless people” (Kumar). The Department hadn’t written off these complaints as from cranks either. The Justice Department investigated complaints of electoral fraud in McMinn County in 1940, 1942, and 1944 and found in a report that “the alleged violations in McMinn County were the worst ever brought to the attention of the Department of Justice” (Kumar). However, no action was taken. Many of the citizens who remained in McMinn County were older and not in a position to fight back against the machine. What’s more, so many jobs in the county were dependent on support of the machine or at minimum, not opposing the machine. The residents spoke amongst themselves that change would come once the GIs returned. They had no idea how right they’d be.

The Veterans Return


The veterans of McMinn County came back from fighting tyranny abroad only to find it at home under the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. While places like Knoxville and Chattanooga were undergoing a postwar boom, Athens, the heart of the county, was languishing. The GIs noticed the tyranny as they were subjected to shakedowns, arrests, and beatings for a litany of reasons. One early instance was the murder of Navy Seabee Earl Ford in September 1944 by George Spurling, a man with a lengthy criminal record who had been deputized by Deputy Minus Wilburn to arrest GIs (Kumar). Deputy Wilburn quickly worked to reframe this event. He planted some of his son’s pocketknives on Ford to make the incident appear to be self-defense (Watson). Sheriff Mansfield would then claim that Ford had charged Spurling with a knife, despite eyewitnesses attesting to Ford having no knife on him during the incident. There would be another murder of a GI by a deputy as well, which poured further fuel onto the fire of discontent.


The 1946 Election


The GI slate was headed up by respected veteran Knox Henry, who was running for sheriff. The ticket itself was bipartisan to gain maximum appeal, with three Republicans and two Democrats running on it. Since the county Republican Party had long been on the outs with the Cantrell-Mansfield machine, they backed the GI ticket as the best way to get back into office with their man Otto Kennedy advising the GIs to post poll watchers at every station. The ticket was also backed by numerous local businessmen, ensuring it was well-funded. The machine had Cantrell running as sheriff again and Mansfield being elevated to the Tennessee Senate. Bill White motivated the veterans to take whatever action was necessary, “Listen, do you think they’re going to let you win this election? Those people have been taking these elections for years with a bunch of armed thugs. If you never got the guts enough to stand up and fight fire with fire, you ain’t gonna win” (Kumar).


The Cantrell-Mansfield machine was at the ready against the good government veterans, and they had their guards out on the polls. Kennedy advised the veterans to have the GIs as poll watchers, which they would. Election Day was August 1st, and the machine had a strategy: if they could control the ballot boxes at the 1st, 11th, and 12th precincts in Athens along with the Etowah polling station the election would be won (Seiber, 3). Etowah was a simple matter as it was on Cantrell’s hometown and he was there personally to supervise, but the Athens places would require a bit more attention. Several events occurred that day which heated tensions to the boiling point. At 3:00 PM at the 11th precinct, Deputy Windy Wise was supervising and in walks Tom Gillespie. He is an old black farmer and had long been allowed to vote, as black people could do so in Eastern Tennessee, provided they had paid the poll tax. Gillespie presents his poll tax receipt, but Deputy Wise tells him “Nigger, you can’t vote here” (Seiber, 3). After Gillespie inquires why, Wise slugs him with brass knuckles. As he tries to escape from the scene, Wise shoots him in the back and he with Deputy Karl Neil takes him as well as the two GI poll watchers present, Ed Vestal and Charles Scott, to jail.


Meanwhile, at the 12th precinct polling place GIs Bob Hairrell and Leslie Dooley were assigned as poll watchers and observed throughout the day Deputy Minus Wilburn allowing minors to vote and bribing adult voters. It was finally too much for Hairrell when at 3:45 PM he saw Wilburn attempt to permit a woman to vote without proof she had paid her poll tax and was not on the registration list, so he grabbed his hand as he attempted to deposit the ballot, to which Wilburn clubbed Hairell and kicked him in the face, and hauled the GIs to the Athens jail with the ballot box (Seiber, 3). The veterans, who at this time were unarmed, were becoming enraged at the abuses and protested at the outside of the jail, taunting the deputies. While they are distracted by the crowd, Vestal and Scott jump out through the glass jail windows and run, bleeding, to the safety of the veterans. The veterans head back to the GI headquarters, with two deputies trailing them, intending to arrest anyone they could identify. However, instead of making arrests, they were promptly disarmed and captured. Three more deputies were then sent to see what happened to the first two and were disarmed and captured, rinse and repeat on two more deputies. Although some in the crowd assembled outside of the GI headquarters were calling for the killing of the deputies, the GIs opted instead to take the seven of them ten miles into the woods, beat them, and tie them to trees (Seiber, 3). The tables had turned on the previously indisputably powerful deputies.

The End…Or Is It?

By 6:00 PM it looked like the machine had succeeded in stealing another election and many veterans were feeling defeated. However, one of the leading veterans, Bill White, wasn’t having it. He had been growing angrier throughout the day over the obvious fraudulent practices of the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. He delivered a rousing speech:


“Well! Here you are! After three or four years of fighting for your country. You survived it all. You came back. And what did you come back to? A free country? You came back to Athens, Tennessee, in McMinn County, that’s run by a bunch of outlaws. They’ve got hired gunmen all over this county right now at this minute. What for? One purpose. To scare you so bad you won’t dare stand up for the rights you’ve been bleeding and dying for. Some of your mothers and some of your sisters are afraid to walk down the streets to the polling places. Lots of men, too! Because they know what happens. A car drives by in the night and shoots out your windows. If that doesn’t scare you enough, they’ll set fire to your house or your barn. They’ll beat up members of your family and put them in jail. For no reason! Is that the kind of freedom you were supposed to be fighting for? Do you know what your rights are supposed to be? How many rights have you got left? None! Not even the right to vote in a free election. When you lose that, you’ve lost everything. And you are damned well going to lose it unless you fight and fight the only way they understand. Fire with fire! We’ve got to make this an honest election because we promised the people that if they voted it would be an honest election. And it’s going to be. But only if we see that it is. We are going to have to run these organized criminals out of town, and we can do it if we stick together. Are you afraid of them? Why, I could take a banana stalk and run every one of these potbellied draft dodgers across Depot Hill. Get the hell out of here and get something to shoot with. And come back as fast as you can” (Kumar).


White and other veterans proceeded to raid the National Guard armory for weapons and ammunition. He would state in a 1969 interview about their activities that 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” (Seiber, 4). That night, Cantrell, Mansfield, Woods, and fifty deputies were holed up in the Athens jail to “count” the ballots. What they didn’t know was that armed veterans were advancing on their position.


The Battle


The veterans, led by Bill White, issued the demand for them to bring the ballot boxes out. White recalls that he shouted, “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!” (Seiber, 4) They refused, and a gunfight proceeded between the veterans and the deputies, with veterans throwing Molotov cocktails and gas bombs. White reported that he fired the first shot in the conflict, but historian C. Stephen Bynum reports that the first shot was a shotgun blast that had come from the jail (Kumar). They were having trouble blasting through the jail doors, and the veterans knew they had to get those ballot boxes by morning or else their efforts would have been for naught, and they would face imprisonment. The tide turned in the veterans’ favor at 2:30 AM when they were able to procure dynamite. By this time, George Woods had already fled the jail and an ambulance arrived, presumably for the evacuation of wounded men. The ambulance, it turned out, was the getaway vehicle for Cantrell and Mansfield. At 2:48 AM, the jail was dynamited, and the surrendering deputies handed over the ballot boxes.


After the deputies were defeated, the emboldened townspeople took their vengeance. As Lones Seiber (1985) writes, “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” (5). However, despite all the tensions and violence, miraculously no one was killed. In the morning the veterans delivered a joint statement over the radio proclaiming their victory, “The GI election officials went to the polls unarmed to have a fair election, as Pat Mansfield promised. They were met with blackjacks and pistols. Several GI officials were beaten and the ballot boxes were moved to the jail. The GI supporters went to the jail to get these ballot boxes and were met by gunfire. The GI candidates had promised that the votes would be counted as cast. They had no choice but to meet fire with fire. In the precincts where the GI candidates were allowed watchers, they led by three-to-one majorities. The GIs are elected and will serve as your county officials beginning September 1, 1946″ (Kumar). George Woods would return to Athens under GI protection to certify the election of the veterans slate and Sheriff Mansfield would depart office early. Of all the people involved in the battle, only Wise was prosecuted, being sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for his shooting of Gillespie (who made a full recovery), being paroled after serving a year. In the immediate aftermath, the national press was unified in condemning the revolt, probably not being aware of the full story of what had been happening in McMinn County and the Feds’ inaction to citizen requests for aid.


Although this incident had brought an end to the Cantrell-Mansfield machine and the new deputies proceeded to raid the illegal establishments previously protected, many socioeconomic problems persisted despite the efforts of the reform government. Numerous GIs were having trouble adjusting to civilian life, with numerous violent incidents surrounding them. Bill White, one of the leaders of the veterans in the Battle of Athens, served as a deputy and had to beat down numerous veterans who were getting into fights. The reform government would eventually collapse, with machine politics returning, albeit absent the gross corruption of the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. Sheriff Henry would serve two terms, afterwards being succeeded by Otto Kennedy. This is one of my favorite stories surrounding the exercise of the Second Amendment, as it was a time in which it was employed to fight tyranny.

References


Brooks, J.E. (2017, October 8). Battle of Athens. Tennessee Encyclopedia.

Retrieved from

https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/battle-of-athens/

Kumar, N. (2020, September 3). The Battle of Athens, Tennessee. Abbeville Institute.

Retrieved from

https://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/the-battle-of-athens-tennessee/

Seiber, L. (1985). The Battle of Athens. American Heritage, 36(2).

Retrieved from

https://www.americanheritage.com/battle-athens

Watson, M. (2008, September 21). Wilburn recalls long ago ‘battle’. Dalton Daily Citizen.

Retrieved from

https://www.dailycitizen.news/news/local_news/wilburn-recalls-long-ago-battle/article_5f6ad6b1-2d32-5161-9215-677c14a26bf7.html

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