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Battle of Athens

Officially, the "Battle of Athens" in McMinn County began and ended on August 1, 1946. Following a heated competition for local offices, veterans in the insurgent GI Non-Partisan League took up arms to prevent a local courthouse ring headed by state senator Paul Cantrell and linked to Memphis political boss Ed Crump from stealing the election. When Sheriff Pat Mansfield's deputies absconded to the jail with key ballot boxes, suspicious veterans took action. A small group of veterans broke into the local National Guard Armory, seized weapons and ammunition, and proceeded to the jail to demand the return of the ballot boxes. The Cantrell-Mansfield deputies refused, and the veterans, now numbering several hundred, opened fire. The ensuing battle lasted several hours and ended only after the dynamiting of the front of the jail. The surrender of the deputies did not end the riot, and the mob was still turning over police cars and burning them hours later. Within days the local election commission swore in the veteran candidates as duly elected. The McMinn County veterans had won the day in a hail of gunfire, dynamite, and esprit de corps.

The battle of Athens stands as the most violent manifestation of a regional phenomenon of the post-World War II era. Seasoned veterans of the European and Pacific theaters returned in 1945 and 1946 to southern communities riddled with vice, economic stagnation, and deteriorating schools. Undemocratic, corrupt, and mossback rings and machines kept an iron grip on local policy and power. Moreover, their commitment to the status quo threatened the economic opportunities touched off by the war. Across the South, veterans launched insurgent campaigns to oust local political machines they regarded as impediments to economic "progress."

In Athens, the Cantrell-Mansfield ring colluded with bootleg and gambling interests, shook down local citizens and tourists for fees, and regularly engaged in electoral chicanery. While communities such as Knoxville, Oak Ridge, and Chattanooga boomed, Athens languished, and veterans returned to a community beset with more problems than opportunities. When Cantrell and Mansfield employed their typical methods to nullify the veterans' votes and reform efforts, the ex-soldiers resorted with the skills and determination that had brought them victory overseas.

Although recalled fifty years later with a certain amount of local pride, the battle of Athens initially proved a source of embarrassment, and many residents abhorred the violent, extralegal actions of the veterans. The image of gun-wielding hillbilly ex-soldiers shooting it out with the Cantrell-Mansfield "thugs" that blazed across national and regional newspaper headlines enhanced East Tennessee's reputation for violence and lawlessness. The Good Government League, empowered by the veterans' victory, scored few successes in its efforts to eradicate the vice, corruption, and arbitrary rule of machine government. Nevertheless, the battle of Athens exemplified the southern veteran activism of the postwar period and defined the disruptive political impact of World War II.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010