The 1946 Battle Of Athens, Tennessee Explained

In 1945 and 1946, World War II veterans were returning to East Tennessee to find a world that wasn't quite what they'd been fighting for. As McMinn County veteran Bill White put it (via Politico), "You came back to [a town] that's run by a bunch of outlaws." He was referring to state Senator Paul Cantrell and his cronies, and White was trying to rally his fellow vets and their supporters to take a stand against election fraud in their county.

By the time he made the speech late in the day of August 1, 1946, Cantrell's supporters were well on their way to stealing the local election, as they'd been doing for 10 years. They had spent the day intimidating voters and poll workers — even beating and shooting some of them — and had just spirited the ballot boxes off to the Athens jail. The veterans had formed an opposition group, running five candidates for local offices, but it looked like they were about to lose, whether or not it was the will of the people (per

White's speech worked. Soon, a group of vets broke into the local National Guard Armory, stole weapons, and walked to the jail, where they began a standoff with sheriff's deputies (via Tennessee Encyclopedia). How many people were involved is unclear — The New York Times reported at the time that about 1,000 people "stormed" the jail, where around 200 deputies were "barricaded." This was the beginning of the "Battle of Athens."

Tennessee government bosses

Government corruption was a pervasive problem in Tennessee at this time, primarily because of the influence of Memphis's city "boss," Democrat Ed Crump. After becoming Memphis mayor in 1909, he held many different public offices and controlled the city until the late 1940s, per Bridgewater Review. He was so rich — and eventually had so many associates in public offices in the city — that he controlled many people's jobs or was able to bribe them into voting as he wanted.

His influence slowly spread outward from Memphis (pictured). According to The Columbia Daily Herald, it even reached East Tennessee, the opposite end of the state, by the 1930s, as Crump began to reach out to disenfranchised politicians there to form partnerships. All this led to Paul Cantrell's 1936 election as McMinn County sheriff. Cantrell was from nearby Etowah, where his family was rich and prominent (via American Heritage). By 1946, he was a state senator but was running for sheriff again versus the veterans' candidate, Knox Henry (via The New York Times). For the past several years, Cantrell's associate Pat Mansfield had been sheriff.

According to Politico, Cantrell, Mansfield, and local deputies had been using the county as a money-making machine. They arrested people for invented crimes to charge them with fees they then pocketed. Newly-returned veterans were especially targeted since the deputies knew they had money. Under the table, brothels and casinos paid the deputies to let them keep operating. Athens became known for vice (via American Heritage).

Election day dawns

On the morning of August 1, the veterans' group issued a statement over the radio, urging people to get out and vote without fear and to survey the counting of votes. They added what had been their slogan throughout their campaign: "Your vote will be counted as cast," according to Politico.

Pat Mansfield, who was running for Paul Cantrell's state Senate seat, expected conflict on election day and swore in 300 special deputies for its duration, per The New York Times. According to American Heritage, all these extra deputies were from out of town. This was done partially in response to veterans from nearby Blount County offering to come help McMinn vets monitor the polls. The veterans and their supporters did post poll watchers at the voting places, and the sheriff's deputies threatened them throughout the day (via The New York Times). According to Politico, the deputies only let a few people into the polling places at a time and watched them as they voted. Because they turned away some legitimate voters, someone dispatched a message to the Department of Justice. There was no answer — just as there had been no answer to more than 1,000 messages about voting fraud sent from McMinn County to the department in the previous 10 years.

Tensions rise late in the day

The violence that most people in Athens were expecting finally erupted that afternoon. Around 3 p.m., Black voter Tom Gillespie, 60, wasn't allowed to cast his ballot (via Politico). Deputy Windy Wise turned him away, using racial slurs, then punched him with brass knuckles. Wise ultimately shot Gillespie, either as he tried to escape or as he tried to reenter the polling place, according to different sources. He may have been taken to jail afterward, per American Heritage. Only minutes later, at another location, poll watcher and veteran Bob Harrill protested when an ineligible voter was allowed to vote. A deputy on the scene beat him severely, and when another vet tried to intervene, he was threatened at gunpoint (via Politico).

At the end of the voting day, two more veteran poll watchers were also threatened with weapons when they tried to exit a polling place. They were watching votes being counted but couldn't actually see anything, prompting them to leave. Fearing for his life, one of them smashed through a glass door, seeking protection from the crowd outside. Later, the ballot boxes were taken to the jail — heavily guarded, per Politico — for further counting, at which point White made his rousing speech to the discouraged veterans.

The Battle of Athens

By around 8:30 p.m., a local radio station reported that the veterans and their supporters had surrounded the jail, but there had not yet been any violence (via Politico). According to American Heritage, Bill White claims to have issued a challenge to the deputies inside the building, yelling that unless someone brought the ballot boxes outside, "We are going to set siege against the jail and blow it down!" When the deputies didn't agree, the veterans opened fire, which the deputies immediately returned (via Politico). Some veterans were being held hostage inside, and the "battle" intensified when demands for their release were denied, per The New York Times.

The battle lasted about six hours, according to The New York Times. Around 2:30 a.m., an ambulance evacuated two men from the jail; the veterans assumed they were wounded deputies, but it was in fact Cantrell and Mansfield escaping the violence. Shortly afterward, ready for the fight to end, the veterans dynamited the front of the jail (via American Heritage). This happened three more times, per Politico. After the dynamite strikes, the deputies finally surrendered, according to Tennessee Encyclopedia. The New York Times reported at least 20 people were wounded in the battle.

The aftermath of the battle

Tennessee Encyclopedia says initially, the people of Athens (pictured) were embarrassed by the battle, and it only increased the national perception of East Tennessee as lacking in law and order. On the other hand, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt approved of the veterans' actions, saying it was "a warning" against people who sought to restrict voting rights (via Politico).

The day after the battle, veterans patrolled the streets with firearms, presumably to prevent any further violence, per The New York Times. It seemed their fears had been justified because after the siege, they found numerous blank ballots in the jail, ready to be used to hand the victory to Paul Cantrell and company (via The New York Times). Meanwhile, the secretary of the election commission confirmed that the veterans had, indeed, won the election, but votes from half the precincts were thrown out because of "tampering," according to another The New York Times article. Because government corruption ran deep in McMinn County, some public offices were abolished or declared vacant, and new government officials began inquiries into their predecessors' actions.

In West Tennessee, Ed Crump's machine was still going strong — he swept the primaries — but opposition to him was forming in neighboring counties (via The New York Times). His downfall came shortly afterward, in the 1948 election, per The Bridgewater Review. These days, in Athens, people take a little more pride in their battle (via Tennessee Encyclopedia).