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The Battle of Athens, Part II
Who wins the battle on Election Day, August 1, 1946?
This essay continues from Part I published last week, about World War II veterans who return home from the war to find their hometown of Athens, Tennessee under the control of a corrupt, power-hungry sheriff who is terrorizing citizens and rigging elections.
The account is based largely on the fascinating The Fighting Bunch, by Chris DeRose. Unless otherwise stated, all quotes come from the book.
On June 14, 1946, the GI candidates hold their first public rally, where each in turn speaks earnestly about the town they left and the one they returned to.
Campaign leader Jim Buttram sums it up when he says,
“The principles that we fought for in this past war do not exist in McMinn County. We fought for democracy because we believe in democracy, but not the form we live under in this country.”
Amid mounting violence and widespread election violations by State Senator Cantrell’s machine — including withholding poll tax receipts from all veterans in an attempt to disenfranchise them — the local congressman pleads for government assistance. The governor of Tennessee, a man who owes his election to state political boss E.H. Crump, offers nothing, saying, “We are going to have an honest election.”
I have to interject here. I’m trying to convey the magnitude of the tsunami of abuse, lies, threats, and even cold-blooded murder perpetrated by Cantrell’s minions, but to really do justice to what DeRose depicts in The Fighting Bunch, this essay would mushroom into Parts III, IV and V. Please, read the book if you really want to feel the ire of injustice rise up in your throat.
Bill White, discounting the chances of an “honest election,” sets himself to the task of creating what he calls a “fighting bunch,” to keep Cantrell from stealing the contest as he has done for the past ten years: by force. White quietly musters a group of fellow GIs who believe, as he does, that the only way to ensure voting freedom in McMinn County is to “fight fire with fire.”
In the few days leading up to Election Day, a reporter from the Chattanooga Times comes to McMinn county to survey residents and finds that everyone he talks to, whether Democrat or Republican, is planning to vote for the veterans. Other newspapers report the same: “The GI ticket will win if the votes are counted as cast.”
Is the Cantrell machine surprised by these printed projections? Quite possibly. Is that why, early in the morning on August 1, Election Day, the train pulls into Athens and disgorges dozens and dozens of armed, badge-wearing deputies? I’d bet on it.
More men show up in cars with out-of-county and out-of-state plates, flooding the town with municipal and state police, prison guards, “even prisoners, including one who was released early from a rape sentence to work the McMinn election.”
All told, 250 men arrive, making Athens look like a true “state of martial law.” Armed deputies stand guard over each of the three polling places in town — the waterworks utility offices, the courthouse, and the Dixie Cafe — even though Sheriff Mansfield had assured voters there would be no such armed oversight at the polls.
At 9:00am, the polls open, and it’s Cantrell Voter Intimidation Business As Usual. Jim Buttram contacts their local congressman in desperation, who in turn sends a telegram to the attorney general:
“TERRORIZED, JAILED, AND PUT OUT OF POLLING PLACES. CITIZENSHIP HELD AT BAY BY THE ARMY OF ARMED DEPUTY SHERIFFS AT POLLING PLACES IN MCMINN COUNTY. CITIZENS APPEALING THROUGH ME TO YOU FOR PROTECTION OF THEIR RIGHTS.”
The GIs convene at headquarters to assess the situation. Buttram tells his fellow compatriots, “They already started knocking our boys in the head and putting them in jail. They’re taking this thing… This thing’s lost.”
Bill White, realizing that the 20 men he enlisted in his “fighting bunch” are not nearly enough, says, “Now, Jim, this thing’s just getting started.”
“Bill, you’re going to get me killed,” replies Buttram. “You’re going to get us all killed.”
At 3:00pm, a 60-year-old black man named Tom Gillespie shows up to vote at the waterworks location. Deputy Windy Wise puts himself between Gillespie and the ballot box, and tells him he can’t vote. When Gillespie insists it’s his right, Wise punches him in the face with brass knuckles, then drags him out to the sidewalk.
Undeterred, Gillespie picks himself up and walks back into the polling place. He leans against the wall and folds his arms. He’s not leaving, it’s clear.
Wise pulls out his gun and shoots him. The other deputies haul the bleeding Gillespie off, not to the hospital, but to jail, where Sheriff Mansfield happens to be giving an interview to the Knoxville radio station.
“What do you want us to do with him?” they ask. Mansfield replies cleverly, “Take him to the hospital,” and turns back to the interview in one seamless move.
The rest of the afternoon follows the same corrupt, violent playbook. Voters for Cantrell vote without poll tax receipts, cast multiple ballots, and vote underage. A GI tasked with poll watching is beaten and dragged, unconscious, off to jail where his wallet is stolen. Deputies assault GI supporters and even journalists, taking their cameras and destroying their film.
In this town the GIs are heavily outnumbered by deputies, but in other towns of McMinn County, voters are able to cast their votes more successfully — and the GI ticket is winning. Mansfield closes down the polls in Athens early and starts “counting” behind closed doors.
At the waterworks utility offices polling location, a deputy takes two GIs hostage, Charles “Shy” Scott and Ed Vestal, ordering them at gunpoint to watch the illegal vote count. An angry crowd develops outside, watching the hostage situation through the clear plate glass. Two reporters, attempting to get preliminary vote totals, push through the mob to the front door.
While they’re standing there, Shy Scott seizes the moment, hoping that the deputies won’t shoot him in front of the press. He flings his body into the glass door twice, shattering it on the second attempt, and he and Vestal fall to their knees “in a pile of shattered glass, cut and bleeding.” They get up, arms raised, and start walking.
Windy Wise, the deputy who had shot Tom Gillespie, raises his gun and aims at Scott’s back. Other deputies follow suit. The crowd screams and takes cover. “Don’t shoot!” some yell. “Kill ‘em” shouts one of the deputies.
Some sane deputy half-grabs Wise’s arm, giving the two GIs an opportunity to disappear into the crowd. Minutes later, Sheriff Mansfield arrives. Flanked by deputies, he walks into the waterworks offices and emerges with the ballot box. The crowd is furious, but armed guards press them back.
It’s about this moment that a journalist later wrote, “…it looked like the show of force was over, with the pistol toting thugs again the winners, as they had been in every election since 1936.”
The crowd disperses a bit, and the GIs retreat to an auto repair garage to discuss their options. Three veterans are trapped in the courthouse, and there are 12 ballot boxes being counted behind closed doors. Frustrated, they agree that they can’t properly fight back to free their comrades or rescue the boxes. “We just aren’t well enough organized and we haven’t got guns.”
As they’re speaking, a pair of deputies arrive. The GIs surround them and tie them up in the back of the garage. Soon, another pair arrives, presumably looking for the first pair. That second pair is handled the same way, and the veterans continue talking. Four more deputies show up, and this time the GIs overtake three while one runs away. They drive the three out of town, tie them naked to trees, and leave them there.
Back at GI headquarters, the gravity of the situation hits. Jim Buttram decides he’s had enough, and he leaves town with Shy Scott; Knox Henry (the GI candidate for sheriff) also heads to a neighboring town. Without these key individuals, aimlessness is starting to creep in. Bill White can see it.
He knows he has to do something. Having never been one for speeches, and not knowing what he will say, he nevertheless gets up to speak:
“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. 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…
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…
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.”
They obey the “get the hell out of here” part, yet only a handful of men return — White, Jimmy Lockmiller, and David Hutsell among 13 others — carrying all manners of firepower. In need of ammunition, the group caravans to the national guard armory one mile west of town, where the caretaker looks the other way as they stock up on more guns and ammunition.
Tipped off that Mansfield and Cantrell had taken all the ballot boxes to the jail along with 50 deputies, Bill and the fighting bunch make their way slowly to it, serious and resolute, waiting until the sun sets to arrive there in darkness, en masse.
Townspeople notice their intent, and head for the jail as well. A radio announcer says, “The crowd is converging on the county jail at this time. But no violence has been reported. Everyone here acts as if they are waiting for a time bomb to explode. That may happen. All women have just been ordered off the street.”
Around 8:45pm, the veterans climb up an embankment across the street from the two-story jailhouse. They wait.
This moment is one I can recognize as deeply significant. On one side is, essentially, the U.S. government; on the other, a group of young soldiers who until just months ago were welcomed home as heroes for fighting on behalf of the U.S. government. What must that be like for these young men? To know that as they wait, on this familiar street in their hometown — now suddenly a potential battle zone — they are poised to step over the line from law-abiding citizen to revolutionary?
In that moment, I imagine there is only one way to justify stepping over that line: complete and total conviction in the justness of their cause.
A GI shouts, “Bring those boxes out and there won’t be any trouble,” and a voice from inside the jail counters, “You’re going to have to come get them.” Bill White pulls the bolt back on his rifle, and that sound is enough.
The line is crossed. The battle begins.
Jail windows shatter, the crowd scatters in chaos, and both sides fire continuously. White shoots out a few street lights to put the jail and the GIs in darkness, and some of the GIs fan out to take positions on rooftops, behind parked cars, and in an alley that leads to the jail. They do what they were trained to do: put their target in crossfire.
The back-and-forth shooting continues, with neither side gaining any advantage. During a lull, a voice from inside the jail warns that they’ll shoot the three hostage GIs if the attack isn’t called off, but everyone knows it’s a bluff. The battle goes on, the air growing heavy with the acrid smell of discharging firearms.
At some point, a major in the National Guard who also is sympathetic to Cantrell rushes to the jail and sneaks in during a break in the action. He makes a call to Adjutant General Butler of the National Guard in Nashville to ask for assistance. As he’s speaking on the phone, a bullet hits his thumb and jaw. He drops the phone, and Butler can hear the sound of shooting… until the phone goes dead. Butler decides “to quit investigating and start moving,” and mobilizes Guard units from most of Athen’s surrounding towns.
The two sides exchange gunfire at each other until ammunition for both runs low and the firing slows to a stop. It’s a stalemate. The GIs throw a few Molotov cocktails, but they have no effect.
Meanwhile, sometime during these hours a gang of non-fighting deputies drives to the nearby town of Sweetwater, where they believe Knox Henry is hiding. Their villainous but not terribly well-thought-out plan is to kill him, so that Cantrell will automatically become the next sheriff.
They search door-to-door, rousing residents and shining flashlights in their faces, but they don’t find him, because Knox Henry is hunkered down in Sweetwater town hall, having been forewarned of the deputies’ murderous mission. By the time the gang arrives at the town hall, they are stunned (I told you it wasn’t terribly well thought-out) to encounter a crowd of now-awake-and-armed-and-none-too-pleased townsfolk waiting for them. The gang disperses.
Back in Athens, the GIs are growing anxious. They’ve heard that the National Guard may be arriving soon, and if they don’t force Cantrell’s forces to surrender, they’ll all be branded criminals once the Guard arrives. They know they need something more powerful to end the stalemate, so they send a party to retrieve dynamite stored in a county barn. The party returns by 2:30am.
At 2:45am, a GI yells from the embankment, “Turn the GIs loose within 15 minutes or we’ll dynamite the jail.” There is no response. 15 minutes later, one stick lands in front of the jail and explodes harmlessly, then another. A small bundle also has no effect.
They tie five sticks together, and this time they toss it so that the bundle lands on the porch of the jail. There is a pause, then its explosion lights up the night and echoes throughout the town. Debris flies as the jail’s facade is damaged, and the GIs follow up the dynamite with yet another volley of gunfire.
Suddenly, above the clatter of shots, shouts arise from inside the building, variations on “We give up!”
And with that, six hours after it began, the battle is over.
The sounds of honking horns fill the air, the crowd cheers “reminiscent of a football game” and the deputies march out into the glare of car headlights trained on the jail, one by one, hands aloft. The crowd surges, swarming all over the deputies who shout “Don’t kill me! Please don’t kill me!”
As the three GI hostages walk out free, along with three other GIs jailed for their efforts as poll watchers, onlookers of this spectacle get swept up in decades of pent-up anger rushing like water from a breaking dam. The energy crescendoes into full-blown fury and the mass of people morphs from crowd to mob in an instant.
The GIs and the townspeople bash and overturn the deputies’ fancy cars; Wendy Wise, the deputy who shot Bill Gillespie (now in the hospital, recovering from the shot to his shoulder) is beaten bloody in front of the jail.
The violence continues to escalate until veteran Ralph Duggan, not present for the battle, hears what’s going on in town and rushes to the scene to do what he can to prevent murder. He raises his voice above the din and addresses his fellow GIs:
“Men — listen to me! Men, you’ve gained your objective… Let’s put these men in jail and treat them a damn sight better than they treated us. We’re not beasts. We mustn’t do anything here that we will be ashamed of.”
His exhortations break the spell.
The GIs escort the deputies back into the jail and lock them up, and then, amidst great cheers, the vets carry the ballot boxes out. Someone shouts “Down with Cantrell, down with the deputies!” and someone else starts singing “God Bless America.” The crowd joins in.
Here’s a broader picture of Sam Welty’s rendering of that moment, the mural he created in 2017 to grace a long brick wall in Athens today:
Unsurprisingly, Sheriff Mansfield and Paul Cantrell are nowhere to be found. A few hours later, however, Cantrell’s brother sends a telegram to the Post-Athenian, conceding the election.
Later that same day, August 2, CBS News war correspondent Bill Downs is the earliest reporter on the scene. He arrives in Athens, interviews some of the GIs, and broadcasts this:
“They realize they have taken a serious step, but do not interpret their action as taking the law into their own hands. Rather they say they just put the law back into the hands of the people.”
Over the next few weeks, reporters descend on Athens to cover “the first successful armed rebellion since the revolution.” But no one is talking.