Claims of a stolen election, a corrupt political machine, falsified vote counts, demands for change in law enforcement, rioting in the streets, and open insurrection. While it sounds like 2020, it’s actually 1946 in two quiet southern towns, when anger over corruption in both elections and law enforcement led to open war.
This is the Forgotten History of the Battle of Athens.
McMinn County was a sleepy community in Tennessee whose idyllic façade covered a darker underbelly. By the mid-1930s, the Democratic Party’s Memphis political machine was spreading its tentacles and ran as sheriff the unpopular Paul Cantrell. His controversial win became known as the “Vote Grab of 1936.”
Amid widespread claims of fraud, Cantrell introduced a system for paying himself and his men based on the number of tickets they would write. Essentially, their salaries would be made up of the fees they would charge for various minor offenses. Naturally, they began abusing this almost immediately and fining people—especially tourists—constantly so that they would get more money.
It was corrupt on its face and the people were furious, but strangely, Sheriff Cantrell kept winning re-election; first in 1938 and then again in 1940. When he left his post after being elected to the State Senate, his former deputy, Pat Mansfield, won the 1942 and 1944 elections.
How could this have happened? No one liked the fee system Cantrell and Mansfield had implemented and everyone, it seemed, had voted for their Republican opponents. The Department of Justice investigated what seemed like a sure case of election fraud, but decided against taking any action.
The people of McMinn County were on their own.
After World War II broke out, most of the town’s young men left to fight, and the corruption back home got worse. When Cantrell’s supporters shot and killed two servicemen who were home on leave and word spread among their fellow McMinn County soldiers in Europe, plans were made to stop the Democrat machine as soon as the war ended.
“I thought a lot more about McMinn County than I did about the Japs,” said Ralph Duggan, who was serving in the Pacific Theater. “If democracy was good enough to put on the Germans and the Japs, it was good enough for McMinn County, too!”
A year after the Japanese surrendered, Sheriff Mansfield stood for re-election, and the GIs who had returned had a plan. To combat the Democrat machine, they fielded their own slate of candidates to run in every office the machine controlled.
They ran ads in the local newspaper touting that “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.”
It looked as though they would sweep the elections, but Sheriff Mansfield still controlled the polling places and the people feared that the Democrat machine would steal yet another election.
On Election Day, the veterans organized what they called a “fightin’ bunch” to counter what they knew would be an effort by Mansfield’s deputies to keep their voters from the polls. Mansfield had hired as many as 200 extra deputies, and the veterans knew there would be trouble.
There were scattered clashes, including an incident in which a deputy beat an elderly black voter with brass knuckles and then shot him as he tried to run away.
When the polls closed and counting began, the veteran candidates were winning in a landslide. Suddenly, however, the counting stopped and Sheriff Mansfield had the ballot boxes taken to the jail in the Town of Athens to resume the count in a more secure area.
“Boy, they doin’ something,” said Bill White, one of the veterans’ ringleaders. “I’m glad they done that. Now all we got to do is whip on the jail.”
They did. Hundreds of them. As many as 2,000 descended on the jail and demanded that the ballots be handed over so they could be counted fairly. The deputies refused.
The gunfire started without warning and lasted for hours. The veterans threw Molotov cocktails at the jail in a futile effort to get the deputies to surrender. They were holed in too tightly. But the deputies inside knew it was only a matter of time before they would break in.
Sheriff Mansfield and his boss, Paul Cantrell, snuck away from the scene by calling for an ambulance that the veterans assumed had pulled up to take the injured to the hospital. Instead, it carried the deputies’ two leaders to safety.
At 3:30 am, the veterans used dynamite to blast open the jail walls and the rest of the deputies fled. The battle was over. Inside the jail, the veterans found hundreds of fraudulent ballots giving the Democrat machine a 15-1 vote advantage.
When legitimate count was done and the election certified by outside observers, the veterans swept the election. New Sheriff Knox Henry made Bill White, the head of the “fightin’ bunch,” one of his top deputies.
In the weeks after what became known as “The Battle of Athens,” members of the corrupt Democrat machine began resigning, including the Mayor of Athens and all four of the town’s city council members. The veterans’ success sparked similar movements across the south to recruit young GIs to run against corrupt Democrat machines and was seen as the final nail in the coffin of Democrat machine politics in Tennessee and across the South.
Eventually, the movement known as the G.I. Non-Partisan League petered out as many of the veteran candidates joined the Republican Party, but their victory in the Battle of Athens proved that sometimes the only way to fight government corruption is to literally fight it.