There is perhaps no more well-known American domestic battle than the battle of Athens, TN. War-weary veterans returning from the various theatres of WWII came home only to face a machine steeped in corruption and faced yet another battle for liberty – the Battle of Athens. Today, we’ll be going over this famous battle and focusing on the facts, the firearms, and the overarching ramifications of the Battle of Athens, otherwise known as the McMinn County War.
If you enjoy reading about Historical American Domestic Battles, check out The Battle of Blair Mountain that we covered last time.
G.I.s Fighting Corruption: Breaking Down the Battle of Athens Tennessee
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to sit in judgment of any party that was involved in this incident. The purpose of this article is to take the facts which have been presented to the public to show readers a clinical, unbiased, and truthful look at the Battle of Athens.
In 1936, Malcolm Paul Cantrell was elected as McMinn county Sheriff and eventually rose to the level of State Senator and Chairman of both the McMinn County Court and McMinn Democratic Party. Cantrell used this power to allow his deputies to intimidate and attack his political opposition by allowing ineligible people to vote, and prevent otherwise eligible people from voting. In addition, Cantrell allowed gambling and other illegal activities to take place under his watch and actively profited from this during his time in office. This came to a head during the election of 1946 where Cantrell would attempt to pass on his position as Senator to a man named Pat Mansfield. This transition would allow Cantrell to return to his position as Sheriff before his ultimate plan to run for the Governor of Tennessee.
US serviceman serving during the war received letters from home from their families regarding the abuse of power that was taking place at home and things only became worse as the war ended and these men started to return home only to be arrested for public drunkenness or simply having a beer since they were not a part of the established group paying off Sheriffs for the privilege. This unwelcome return home by fellow countrymen drove these veterans to start organizing and meeting in order to oust this corrupt machine.
Frustrated with the situation, these men started to form their own non-partisan ticket in order to secure the Sherrif’s office and end the corruption. A man from the Army Air Corps, Knox Henry (pictured below) was selected to be their candidate for Sheriff. Election day was to take place on August 1st and before that Sheriff Pat Mansfield mustered 250 men including prison guards and released prisoners for the express purpose of controlling the election.
On Election Day, a local farmer, Tom Gillespie was punched and shot by a 45 caliber handgun by Deputy Clifford Wise when attempting to go in and vote for G.I. Candidate Knox. Tom Gillespie survived his injuries and Deputy Wise was sentenced to three years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary and only served about one year before being paroled. He never returned to Athens, Tennessee. This shooting by Deputy Clifford “Windy” Wise took place in full view of two members of the newly formed G.I. non-partisan ticket who were poll watching – Charles Scott and Ed Vestal. Scott and Vestal escaped the situation under gunfire sparking a panic in the crowd under which the ballot box was then transported to the jailhouse.
Several deputies were sent to arrest Scott and Vestal but were disarmed and detained, as were their reinforcements. The deputies were walked out to the woods and tied to trees naked. It was at this point that the G.I. faction realized that they weren’t going to get a fair election and so they made the decision to arm themselves. To gain additional weaponry, the G.I.s drove to the local national guard armory and raided it for arms and ammunition acquiring three M1 Garand rifles, five M1911 pistols, sixty M1917 Enfield rifles, and two Thompson submachine guns. Other weapons included.45 Colt revolvers, a personally owned double-barrel shotgun, Molotov cocktails, and eventually sticks of dynamite.
The Battle of Athens
The now heavily armed G.I.s returned to the area of the jailhouse and took up position across the street inside of a boarding house which sat atop a small hill – it was well covered and in an extremely advantageous place to lay siege to the jailhouse. The G.I.s took up position and yelled across the street for the ballot boxes to be released to which the Cantrell, Mansfield, and the Sheriff’s flatly refused.
This all boiled over as Bill White raised his firearm (sources can’t determine if it was a revolver or rifle) and fired the first shot. A cacophony of gunfire ensued from both sides as round after round of .30-06, punctuated by bursts of .45 ACP from Thompsons and blasts rang out from the G.I.s position. Sheriff’s returned fire while some attempted to flee with one Deputy being shot in the leg, and another being shot through the hand and lower jaw. At some point during the battle, the only known official picture taken during the battle was shot by a member of the Knoxville Journal.
Sheriff’s called the National Guard for reinforcement and the G.I.s caught wind of this news and knew that if the battle lasted till morning, they’d face some pretty harsh punishment. Itching to get the battle over, the G.I.s resorted to throwing Molotov cocktails at the jailhouse but were only able to score hits at the police cruisers parked in the street.
Dynamite was then used but as with the Molotov cocktails couldn’t be hefted far enough to reach the jailhouse to do any damage – only flipping over the now burnt police cruisers. Bill White resorted to crawling across the street to place bundled charges on the porch of the jailhouse with other sources saying charges also made it onto the roof and another destroying a jail wall. After three successive and devastating blasts of dynamite, followed by a final strong volley of gunfire followed by a single sentence emanating from the jailhouse:
We give up!
After the conclusion of the Battle of Athens, the ballot boxes were secured and counted leading to a Knox victory. The streets were lined with destroyed police and sheriff’s department vehicles – many of them without state license plates. Curiously, the Mayor of Athens was not in town at the time of the battle and City Policemen were completely absent from the city. All in all, a group of brave G.I.s had wrested control from Cantrell and Mansfield who had fled the jailhouse the previous night under the cover of an ambulance which the G.I.s thought was there to rescue the wounded.
Although the town was buzzing with a state of euphoria because of the election results, the G.I.s calmly awaited their expected punishment for their actions. However, Governor McCord rescinded his order to activate the national guard and the G.I.s maintained control of the county until Knox Henry was officially installed as Sheriff on September 1st. The punishment the G.I.s feared never came as they patiently guarded the town of Athens and the transition of power was peaceful. Sherrif Knox would go on to destroy the illegal gambling machines that were fueling the corrupt Cantrell machine and enforced a fair rule of law in the county.
I hope you enjoyed this brief breakdown of the Battle of Athens. Due to time constraints, many details were left out. Most of the information on this short breakdown was gleaned from the pages of the recently released book by Chris DeRose The Fighting Bunch. It is one of the best books that I have had the pleasure of reading in recent memory and was the impetus for this article. Let us know down in the comments what other domestic battles you’d like to see covered.