The Battle of Athens, Tennessee

On August 1, 1946, a group of Southern World War Two veterans in Athens, Tennessee, fought and won the only successful armed insurrection in the United States since the War of Independence. These brave men embodied that irrepressible Southern spirit, that martial valor and moral sublimity that suffused the souls of Dixie and her children for generations upon generations, stretching backwards in time through the annals of Indo-European civilization — that constitution which we fervently hope has not drained from our blood forevermore. The Battle of Athens stands, then, as a monumental event in the history of Southern, and thus Western, civilization, the fulfillment of an ancestral promise; so, too, does the Battle of Athens represent a call echoing through the ages to fall on modern ears that must not remain deaf — a call to actualize the destiny that our forefathers spilt so much blood, both their own and their enemies’, to leave to us.

Athens is the seat of McMinn County, which, at the time, was the nerve center for Sheriff Paul Cantrell, a major lieutenant of a corrupt Democratic machine which stretched from Tennessee to the District of Columbia. Though we will eschew labeling Cantrell or his machine politics “evil,” as this was simply the way things were done in many American polities, it is worth noting that before and especially during the Second World War, Cantrell presided over corruption and graft on an industrial scale. As Chris DeRose details, the Sheriff drew salaries of nearly sixty thousand dollars per year over his first six years that were worth well over one million dollars in today’s purchasing power. He was also appointed superintendent of the county workhouse for an additional salary of over two thousand dollars; DeRose notes that “McMinn County did not have a workhouse, making its superintending easy.” This at a time when the median Tennessee home was worth less than two thousand dollars and the starting salary for enlisted men was fifty dollars per month. Despite strict rationing, McMinn machine men never wanted for cars, tires, or fuel. Illegal casinos, speakeasies, and whorehouses payed thousands of dollars per month in protection money. Dozens of county employees were listed on the payrolls for the sole purpose of providing cover for a vast money laundering operation.

There were no “elections” in McMinn County through the war years. The ballot boxes were in Democratic offices, and Cantrell’s deputies served as the election officers, some of whom were brutal killers with the blood of innocent civilians on their hands. Other local thugs and felons were on hand to further inculcate the climate of fear, including a man who murdered his own father and, five months after the election, murdered his sister-in-law, an expectant mother, and an infant child. There were about two gunmen for each voter; DeRose further illuminates the chicanery, noting that some voters were temporarily imprisoned to prevent them from voting, while others had their poll tax receipts and eligibility certificates invalidated, “in some cases by the very official who had issued them.” Word was put out among elderly voters that their pensions would be held up unless they voted “the right way.” When the Republican election judge, a disabled veteran of the First World War, attempted to view the ballot count, he was dragged into the corridor and beaten, leaving him paralyzed. Another man who attempted to observe the ballot count was pistol-whipped, and one gunman fired at a poll worker who tried to leave the courthouse.

Several Athenians petitioned the Department of Justice for relief, knowing that local and State officials would not take any action against the machine. A hardware store owner wrote Attorney General Francis Biddle, imploring, “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.” A minister wrote to Biddle of “a ruthless exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous men who sacrifice public liberties for the sake of private gain . . . nothing has been considered too low if it will enable them to perpetuate themselves in office. Decent citizens feared to bring their wives to the polls, and often felt it unwise to cast their own ballots…It is not possible for a letter to contain information concerning all the subversive and unscrupulous activities that have taken place in this county.”

The Department of Justice compiled a report, observing that “the alleged violations in McMinn County were the worst ever brought to the attention of the Department of Justice.” Despite overwhelming evidence and continuing petitions, the Feds took no action. A separate ouster lawsuit against McMinn election commissioners was finally tried by the Assistant Attorney General, largely due to the fact that the U.S. Attorney and the two U.S. Senators who had recommended him were believed to be associated with the machine, but this case was held before a judge who was also rumored to be a part of the organization. The judge dismissed most of the charges and fined the men one penny for the charges that stuck. Meanwhile, the machine hummed along. Cantrell was elected to the Tennessee Senate, and his man Pat Mansfield replaced him as Sheriff. A common refrain among the townsfolk became, “Just wait ‘til the boys come home.” As the veterans trickled back to Athens, they found a town that they longer recognized.

Near the end of September, 1944, Earl Ford, a Navy Seabee, was enjoying his first night of leave. He and another sailor went out for drinks and music. DeRose describes the events that followed:

Ford asked to use the telephone in plain view. They told him they didn’t have one. Ford got up to leave. His friend went with him. Deputy Minus Wilburn thought they looked like easy marks. Servicemen always had money. He’d arrest them and pocket a nice fee. He deputized George Spurling and Clyde Davis, notorious criminals both, as officers of the law in order to assist him in making an arrest. They caught up with the sailors in the parking lot. Spurling clubbed Ford repeatedly over the head. Ford, stumbling, backed up, his hands raised in surrender. “Don’t move or I’ll blow you in two,” said Spurling. Ford didn’t move. Spurling shot him in the chest from ten feet away. Ford staggered, struggling to stand, trying to comprehend what was happening to him. Earl Ford fell to the ground, where he was left for twenty minutes. Ford was pronounced dead at Foree Hospital. Sheriff Mansfield defended the shooting to the newspaper: Wilburn “undertook to subdue a bunch of disorderly sailors and others, and deputized Spurling and others on the scene to help him.” Mansfield claimed that they had pulled Ford off of Spurling’s back and that Ford had charged Spurling with a knife. Why hadn’t anyone else seen the knife? Wilburn claimed the knife was found under Ford’s body. He did not explain how a knife, held out in front of a man, could wind up behind and under him when he was shot. W. O. Swindler, a cattleman from South Carolina, was traveling through town with his son and didn’t know anyone involved. They were the first to come to Ford’s aid. Neither saw any weapons anywhere near the body. A doctor who came outside the Halfway Court and attempted to save Ford’s life saw no weapon. In fact, Ford was wearing a sailor’s uniform with no pockets, and had nowhere to conceal a knife.

McMinn County deputies often walked into bars an announced that every patron was under arrest for public intoxication; worse still, DeRose notes, were the “siren bandits,” policemen who targeted innocent motorists and tourists. These deputies pulled people over and outright robbed them. All the while, the bootleggers, casino operators, and pimps raked in piles of money, protected by the same brigands. The McMinn County Jail in downtown Athens was a fortress that civilians took a wide berth around. As DeRose describes, “People would walk a block out of their way to avoid walking past, lest they be arrested by a lazy deputy. The sidewalk was cracked in front of the jail, and anyone who tripped was certain to see the inside on a charge of public drunkenness. Prisoners remembered its: ‘sickening stench,’ the air thick with flies, sleeping on ‘uncovered mattresses…black with dirt,’ filthy blankets, ‘huge cobwebs,’ and ‘peeling paint.’ The kitchen was ‘a dirty, nauseating disgrace.’ The money not spent on the housing and feeding of prisoners went straight into the Sheriff’s pocket.” When Cantrell betrayed a member of his machine, the man aired some of its dirty laundry. In retaliation, the man’s father was arrested and robbed, and an attempt was made on his brother-in-law’s life, shot in broad daylight by a deputy.

When Bill White returned from his tour of duty, he was aghast. Like myself, Bill was the descendant of a Revolutionary War veteran. White’s illustrious ancestor also happened to be the founder of the city of Knoxville, and went on to serve as a Senator in the rogue State of Franklin, the short-lived independent republic formed out of western North Carolina in present-day eastern Tennessee. Bill’s father, Edd, a veteran of the First World War, told his son a story:

He walked five miles a day to work at the power station on Railroad Avenue. He carried his lunch in a brown paper bag and a pint of milk from Mayfield’s Dairy. While walking past the jail on his way home he saw four deputies stare at him, get in a car, and start the engine. As he walked past the courthouse, the car was in the middle of the street, following him. He lowered his head and kept walking. He walked past the bus station and they were right alongside him. Edd picked up the pace. They accelerated. He didn’t know what they wanted with him or why. But he knew it wasn’t good. He panicked and started running to his house. The car pulled in front of him and slammed on its brakes. Four deputies jumped out with clubs in their hands. He was arrested and taken to jail. Now it was time to figure out a reason. The deputies took his milk bottle out of the bag and passed it around, taking a sniff. “Smells funny,” they agreed. The deputies who protected the roadhouses and honky-tonks and lined their pockets with kickbacks from bootleggers and pimps decided the remnant of Edd White’s milk was alcohol. He was fined $16.05, several days’ pay.

“It was a big surprise,” said Bill. He was home, and “everything, everything, everything you’ve been told you’re supposed to be fighting for wasn’t there.” There were “liquor houses, whorehouses, gambling joints all over the county,” protected by “a bunch of thugs wearing guns and badges.” One GI plainly stated that “it was a dictatorship down here,” that the “elections” were nothing short of a farce. As another veteran said, “It wasn’t really a town anymore. It was a jail.” Another GI deplored the deputies, who “were nothing but a lot of swaggering, strutting, storm-troopers, drunk most of the time, beating up our citizens for the slightest reason.” Yet another observed that “if you were on the right team, why, you could get away with almost anything. If you were on the wrong team, you couldn’t get away with anything.” This should all sound all too familiar for us today. When Cantrell announced that he was returning to Athens to “run” for Sheriff, Mansfield his handpicked successor to the State Senate seat, the GIs knew that now was the time to take action. Despite having been warned to stay away from the polls and to not even consider running for office, the veterans began organizing. As one of the soldiers put it, “We just got plain tired of being pushed around by a bunch of thugs.”

Though their preparations were conducted in secrecy, the GIs got a ticket together, the “Ex-Serviceman’s Cleanup Ticket for McMinn County.” As C. Stephen Byrum notes, the GI ticket was superior to the machine’s, “by any rules of logic,” comprised of men “young and old, Democratic and Republican, city and country, all veterans, all battle-tested, and all highly thought of.” The local Republican Party resolved to officially endorse the veterans’ ticket instead of running its own candidates; after seconding the motion in favor of the resolution, one party official delivered an excellent summation: “We are involved in a conflict with desperate enemies who have sought to subject us to tyranny and oppression…We feel a deep sense of obligation and now seek in measure to repay…Young men who have fought against oppression abroad will continue that fight for honesty and decency at home.” Amid a campaign of harassment and violence to silence them, the GIs persisted. Bill White, the most prescient of the group, felt that his compatriots were being naïve, arguing that they had to organize a “fighting bunch.” “Listen,” he said. “Do you think they’re going to let you win this election? Those people 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.”

With the aid of a sympathetic radio operator, the GIs broadcast a raft of campaign ads. Some took aim at the ill-gotten gains of Sheriff Mansfield: “Don’t you think that $108,000 in four years is a lot of money to pay to the sheriff’s office? Vote GI: Your vote will be counted as cast.” DeRose notes that Mansfield’s fortune would be worth nearly one-and-a-half million dollars today, “and this was just the money on the books.” In another ad, the veterans asked: “Do you believe that every vote voted in an election should be counted as cast? Do you believe that open gambling houses should be operating in McMinn County? Do you think that the voters of McMinn County owe Paul Cantrell anything more? Do you believe that three terms as Sheriff, four terms as Chairman of the County Court and two terms as State Senator should satisfy Mr. Cantrell? Should a man be Chairman of the County Court and also Sheriff of McMinn County? Do you believe that any man seeking public office should be forced to get the blessings of any man before being permitted to run? Do you think the Sheriff of McMinn County should make more money than the Vice President of the United States?”

Election Day

Election Day had finally arrived. A local minister exhorted his congregation thus: “If you do not vote as your conscience dictates, then you have sold your citizenship and do not deserve to be citizens. It is the responsibility of each and every person to preserve our most cherished possession, liberty, or forever lose it.” Armed deputies “guarded” each polling place, and reports of election fraud poured in to GI headquarters almost immediately. One veteran lamented, “They already started knocking our boys in the head and putting them in jail. They’re taking this thing…This thing’ lost.” Bill White would have none of that, replying, “Now…this thing’s just getting started.” White was right; indeed, it would not be long before the machine drew first blood.

At one polling place, a deputy beat and shot a sixty-year-old whose only crime had been his surplus of gumption in exercising his right to vote. Meanwhile, another deputy delivered a brutal beating to a GI election judge after he protested the brazen voter fraud happening before his eyes; the deputy tried to draw his gun, and likely would have killed the veteran, but it snagged in his holster. When he had exhausted himself, he had the man dragged to the jail bloody and insensate. By this time, DeRose notes, “there were twelve ballot boxes: one in the jail, another inside a heavily defended courthouse, a third barricaded in the Dixie Café, a fourth in the vault in the Cantrell Bank Building, and poll watchers had been ejected at two other locations.” Inside the courthouse, deputies held a handful of GI poll watchers hostage, two of them wounded. Three waves of deputies were dispatched to the garage that a group of GIs had made their temporary headquarters, and each in turn was subdued. When the first two arrived, Byrum describes, they strutted with “an egotism and bravado that was blown up out of proportion.” One person yelled, “You really think you’re something, don’t you?” A second assayed: “They have been given authority, but they’re not big enough to handle it.” “In almost Keystone Cop fashion,” Byrum continues, “the deputies… decided to send some more of their number to see what had happened to the first two.” After the veterans handled these three, “two more deputies came to check on the other five.”

As DeRose puts it, “A line had been crossed. For nearly ten years the deputies had done whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted. What had been the consequence? People complained. They wrote letters. A handful of henchmen had some small legal difficulties. Only one had seen the inside of a jail. Now seven deputies had been roughed up and robbed and were being held prisoner. More justice had been meted out in those frantic minutes than in the previous ten years…Bill and the other GIs treated the deputies to a drive along the country roads of McMinn. They marched the captives into the woods, made them take off their clothes, and tied them to trees. Some got whipped with a hickory stick. The GIs headed back to town, leaving the deputies behind.” Back in town, the GIs were adrift, unsure of what their next course of action should be. Bill White put an end to their indecision. He rallied the troops, crying:

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.

 Inspired by White, the veterans fanned out to procure all of the weapons and ammunition that they could. They returned with an arsenal of pistols, rifles, shotguns, squirrel guns, and European souvenirs like a German Mauser. White still wasn’t satisfied: “We need some more firepower.” A group got together to raid the nearby National Guard armory, where they found revolvers, a Thompson submachine gun, an array of .30-caliber M1917 rifles, and plenty of ammunition. For good measure, one man drove to his hunting lodge in Asheville to collect his stash of ammunition. DeRose describes the scene well: “They draped themselves with bandoliers of bullets, took everything they could carry, and drove back to town. The GIs had opened their headquarters with such fanfare—a sign of their resistance and political viability a block from the courthouse. They had passed happy days there, answering encouraging phone calls and greeting enthusiastic supporters. Now here they were, divvying up guns and ammunition.”

Word came that the Sheriff’s deputies were gathering at the jail, where the ballot boxes had been taken. Bill White understood that he risked his freedom and his life, along with the lives of his brothers in arms, and yet, like his Southern forefathers had twice before, he did it anyway. DeRose notes that White had joined the Marines just steps away, at the old Post Office which now stood between him and the jail. He had sworn to defend America against all of her enemies, and he meant to satisfy his vow. Later, White would explain that “if it was worth going over there and risking your life, laying it down, it was worth it here, too. So, we decided to fight.” The GIs set out, ready for action. They formed a line on a hillside across from the jail and demanded that the machine men bring out the ballot boxes. From the jail, someone called, “You’re going to have to come get them.” The GIs answered that that’s exactly what they would do. Someone else inside the jail shouted, “Why don’t you call the law?” A GI delivered the rejoinder: “There ain’t no damn law in McMinn County!” According to Byrum, the first fire was a shotgun blast from inside the jail; in any case, gunfire erupted.

Flashes pierced the night, both sides keeping up a sustained assault on one another. Athens, DeRose writes, “rattled to the roar of Tommy-guns, rifles, and pistols” and the “blunt blast of shotguns mingled with the sharper crack of rifles and the whine of ricochets.” The GIs, under the ceaseless torrent of bullets, climbed rooftops to take positions atop a ring of buildings encircling the jail. In the streets, the veterans further hemmed in the crossfire, firing from behind walls and parked cars. The soldiers shot out the transformer that supplied the jail, Byrum notes, “leaving the deputies not only low on ammunition but with the difficult task of groping around trying to load guns in the dark.” Meanwhile, a group of Monroe and Polk County deputies tore the town apart searching for Knox Henry, the GI candidate for Sheriff, planning to murder him when they found him and thereby ensure that Cantrell would win.

After receiving news that the National Guard had been mobilized, the GIs asked White what they should do. He replied immediately, vowing, “We’re not going to do anything about it. We’re going to keep shooting here until we get those ballot boxes and get those people out of there.” Running out of time, they realized that they needed to pick things up. One of the veterans reminded Bill that there was an enormous stockpile of dynamite in the old county barn that the county used to clear roads and blast stumps and stones. The dynamite procured, the GIs commenced tossing dynamite in increasing amounts at the jail, aiming closer and closer with each throw, finally promising that the next would be through the window. This last threat was followed by the veterans’ ultimate volley. The machine men, outgunned and out of ammunition, surrendered, and the deputies marched out one after another, their hands held high in supplication to their victorious conquerors. A swollen crowd of townspeople cheered.

The GIs searched the deputies for weapons and marched them from the jail to the courthouse in a column led by Bill White. They dragged and shoved the machine men all the way, parading them across the town square before returning them to the jail. DeRose explains that “Bill wanted them to get a look at the people they’d been oppressing, the ones they’d been sworn to protect.” The deputies’ fancy cars, mostly 1942 models that had been the last produced for domestic use, had been a constant reminder of their corruption, of the tyranny that they exercised over the common man. Now, DeRose continues, they were overturned, doused with gasoline, and set aflame, as “anything that would break on the cars was broken. Anything that could be pulled off, or cut, or torn, or just bashed to hell, was a fair target.” The first car set upon was turned to “smashed junk” in “a matter of minutes.” Though Paul Cantrell and Pat Mansfield had made their escapes, plenty of machine men remained for the town to avenge themselves upon. The people of Athens, Tennessee, were in a hanging mood, the air filled with cries urging that the deputies be hung or shot where they stood. The veterans, however, brought the crowd to order: “We have gained our objective! …I’m not a murderer and I know my friends here are not murderers…Let’s treat these men right. Better than they would treat us…We’re not beasts…Let’s not spoil the fruits of victory now…And when [the National Guard] come[s] in the morning, we’ll dictate the peace terms!”

The veterans delivered a statement to a local radio station: “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.” At a nearby airstrip, GIs called off an aerial attack in which they had planned to drop bombs over the jail. Back in town, the veterans got to work fumigating the insects that had devoured their homes. Over seventy of them carried out raids against all of the gambling dens, seizing the slot machines and destroying the equipment. As one of the men told a reporter, “We cleaned up the dirty politics here, and now we’re cleaning up the stepchildren born of politics.”

The next day, a reporter noticed that the GI guarding the jail was armed only with a blackjack, with no gun in sight. He asked why, and the young veteran replied, “Don’t need a gun today. That’s what all the shootin’ was about last night.” Indeed. Knox Henry was sworn in as Sheriff, declaring: “We have accomplished what we started out to do. We’ve broken the grip of the political machine that has ruled McMinn County for ten years without regard as to the wishes of the people in how their government was to be run. When I say we, I mean the other GIs on the nonpartisan cleanup ticket and the citizens of McMinn County who helped us win the battle. We regret that the gunfight at the jail had to happen…Our only alternative was to use force…there will be no trouble of this kind at the next election. Any person who can qualify for an office may run with the full assurance of an honest election and the people will have nothing to fear when they go to the polls on Election Day.” Henry needed a whole new team of deputies, and pinned a star on Bill White. Almost immediately, they carried out raids on the moonshiners and bootleggers who had enjoyed the protection of the vanquished machine.

Letters inundated the local papers, with messages of encouragement such as: “To the GI Patriots, Athens, Tennessee: Thank you indeed for restoring the faith in America which so many of us had lost. Keep pitching and firing when necessary.”; “We have chicken-stealers and hog-stealers! House-stealers and auto-stealers! But the lowest, dirtiest of all are our election-stealers!”; and, “I congratulate you in the memory of my son, who lies buried in the South Pacific.” One GI carried a small paper with him everywhere, which read: “Remember…that no American can afford to be disinterested in any part of his Government, whether it is county, city, State, or nation.” The Tennessean praised what “has happened in the beautiful little city of Athens in McMinn County,” which “undoubtedly has awakened a thrill of pride throughout this machine-ridden state. Make no mistake. The McMinn County veterans and their supporters had first won their victory at the polls. Then they fought, with their bare fists and such weapons as they could seize, to protect their election from the theft attempted by force of arms before their eyes. This was no ‘riot’—unless Bunker Hill was a riot.” The “Boston Tea Party of Tennessee [caused] by a decade of election corruption and thievery, has stamped upon a brutal farce it had determined to endure no longer.” The battle was “what always has happened where men not born of a craven race have been pushed too far by tyranny.”

Similarly, a Commonwealth editorial read: “Since, after all, our American nation was founded by virtue of revolution, and since such revered figures as Jefferson evidently thought that revolution had valuable tonic effects on the body politic, it would be a trifle hypocritical for Americans to raise their hands in horror at these goings-on in the shadow of the Great Smokies.” The author continued by noting that the insurrection had met all of the criteria for the Christian doctrine of just war. One reporter, a war correspondent, reported thus: “They realize [that] they have taken a serious step, but do not interpret their action as [having taken] the law into their own hands. Rather, they say [that] they just put the law back in the hands of the people.” Later that year, three of the Athens veterans attended the national VFW convention in Boston, Massachusetts. Byrum describes this denouement: “Late one evening, these young Athenians found their way to the flag pole at the top of the Miles Standish Hotel where the convention was taking place. They took a large Tennessee flag they had with them and raised it over the hotel.” One reporter wrote that this was the first time a Tennessee flag had flown above the Mason-Dixon Line since the War for Southern Independence.

Major Carl Anderson, one of the heroes of the Battle of Athens, distills our lesson in its purest form: “Before you go, I want to say that I hope that our country, especially those places that are as boss ridden as we were, will take hope from what we have accomplished here. I think we have shown how to clean out those dirty nests. Anyway, we’ve done it.” These Southern heroes, Dixie incarnate, took back their town. Let us now take back our nation.

Sources

Byrum, C. Stephen. The Battle of Athens (Paidia Productions, 1987).

DeRose, Chris. The Fighting Bunch: The Battle of Athens and How World War II Veterans Won the Only Successful Armed Rebellion Since the Revolution (St. Martin’s Press, 2020).

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