The returning ex-GIs from World War II little expected that they would fight another armed battle when they arrived back in McMinn County in 1946.
Political corruption and improper government had existed in Athens and Etowah for many years. Citizens’ complaints of election fraud in 1940, 1942 and 1944 had gone unheeded with no action being taken by the United States Department of Justice after investigations.
In 1936, the Democratic candidate for sheriff from Etowah had won the office as part of the Roosevelt landslide across the country and established the political machines that would lead to the violence in the August 1946 election.
McMinn County had a long history of bribe taking by local politicians, the financing of the McMinn sheriff by a fee system based on the amount of fines collected from often illegal arrests and a pattern of voting fraud by both Democrats and Republicans.
Approximately 3,000 soldiers had fought in World War II from McMinn County. Many of them decided to get involved in the 1946 election in an effort to provide “an honest ballot count and reform of county government.”
They put forth a slate of political candidates in various offices that would oppose the political machine headed by the local sheriff, Pat Mansfield, and his colleague, Paul Cantrell, who had previously served as the chief law enforcement officer in the county and would again run in 1946 for sheriff.
In opposition, the community put forth an all ex-GI non-partisan ticket.
The politicking became heated and it became obvious that the threat of violence loomed over the upcoming August election.
In the local newspaper, the Daily Post Athenian, on June 17, 1946, one GI speaker said, “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 forum we are under in this county.”
In an effort to intimidate voters (or keep down violence), Sheriff Mansfield swore in some 200 special deputies to oversee the election.
The most vivid historical depiction of the events of the election is described in a book by C.
Stephen Bynum. The Battle of Athens; Parker Productions, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1987.
As expected, violence erupted, one African-American voter was shot in the back, ex-GIs were fired upon and the ballot boxes were seized by the sheriff’s deputies and taken to the McMinn County jail for counting. This further enraged the citizens and they placed the jail under siege with the sheriff and approximately 25 deputies inside.
In addition to their individual firearms, the GIs borrowed a set of keys to the National Guard and State Guard Armory and seized three M-1 rifles, five .45 semi-automatic pistols and 24 British certified rifles.
Gun battles took place with varying dispositions. Estimates ranged from “a few rounds fired” up to “over 3,000” as later described by participants and witnesses.
Parties on both sides were wounded and around 2 a.m. on Aug. 2, GIs threw dynamite sticks onto the jail’s porch causing substantial damage. The deputies immediately surrendered and the GIs took possession of the jail and the ballot boxes were secured.
A count of the election results showed that the GI’s candidate for sheriff, Knox Henry, had beaten Paul Cantrell 1,168 votes to 789. Other GI candidates for Circuit Court Clerk, County Trustee and Register of Deeds won by similar margins.
In the aftermath, special deputies were appointed to maintain law and order and citizen patrols consisting of both GIs and citizens were appointed until the general election.
The “battle” attracted nationwide attention with extensive coverage in the New York Times and other publications.
Both Chattanooga newspapers sent reporters to cover the unfolding story and both of them got heavily involved in the activities.
Times reporter Richard Rogers was seen mingling in the crowd as an outsider and was confronted by one of the ex-GIs and asked about his purpose for being in Athens. He was then escorted into a garage where four deputy sheriffs were being detained. One of the veterans used his wartime intimidation and humiliation tactics and threatened to shoot the deputies. Rogers was later released.
Veteran News Free Press reporter J.B. Collins had a less friendly experience. He was carrying a camera and took an incriminating picture of a deputy sheriff removing a ballot box from one of the voting precincts and replacing it with an identical ballot box containing presumed pro-administration ballots. The original boxes were then taken to the jail for storage.
J.B. took a photo of the illegal exchange of the boxes but his camera was abruptly seized and the film was destroyed denying the printing of this historical picture. He also was incarcerated for about two hours in the county jail.
Reports of the National Guard being mobilized proved to be false as there was reluctance by both the Governor and State Adjutant General in calling out troops to possibly engage in combat with the ex-GIs who had just served their country.
The actions of the veterans in McMinn County was a motivating factor in the creation of the Good Government League in Chattanooga by Attorney Jac Chambliss and others to fight similar machine politics in Hamilton County.
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