How TN Dealt with Vote Fraud: The Battle of Athens

October 8th, 2012

Sometimes, major historical events get skipped over by high school US history classes. For example, most people have no idea that a lawfully mustered militia overthrew a county government in Tennessee in 1946 in an explosive turn of events now known as the Battle of Athens. Also referred to as the McMinn County War, the conflict was between the corrupt local sheriff and a group of returning World War 2 vets.

Astonished by the corruption infecting their own home county upon returning from World War 2, a slate of veterans ran against local county officials. State Senator Paul Cantrell and Sheriff Pat Mansfield feared that the popular veterans would beat them in a fair election, so they ordered deputies to close the polls and steal the ballot boxes for a private count. In the ruckus, a poll worker from the opposing campaign and an African American voter were shot by deputies at the polls. In response to these astonishing acts of violent tyranny, the people mustered the militia.

When Machine Politics Gets Out of Hand

In post WW2 Tennessee, wealthy families had a vice-like grip on local politics. McMinn County was under the influence of the Cantrell family’s machine. Corruption was widespread. When fines were issued to a citizen, police officers received a cut. This corrupt system led officers to issue infractions recklessly, sometimes with no proof at all. Over time, the locals turned against the county government, but, despite this, no candidate could defeat Cantrell loyalists in local elections. Whispers of voter fraud began to circulate.

In response, popular WW2 veteran Knox Henry ran head-to-head against Paul Cantrell for sheriff. He promised that future McMinn County elections would be fair. Henry gained the support of the local African American community, who often faced voter intimidation at the polls. Seeing the writing on the wall, Cantrell’s machine turned to vote fraud to stop the pending electoral referendum.

McMinn County Residents Were Left with No Other Choice

By the end of election day, one of the Knox campaign’s poll workers had been shot. Cantrell and Mansfield’s deputies opened fire on an African American voter at an election precinct in a cruel act of intimidation. The ballot boxes were being counted privately, and everyone knew Cantrell was going to declare himself the new sheriff. The people of McMinn County had no democratic means left.

Using proper constitutional method, the militia was mustered and officers were elected. The people gathered together arms from the local armory and organized a march to take back the ballot boxes. Mansfield and Cantrell asked the Governor to send in troops to repel the militia, but help never came.

Over 100 sheriff’s deputies turned the local jail into a makeshift fort, hurrying to count the votes in secret before the militia arrived. The World War 2 veterans surrounded the jail, and a deputy opened fire on them. In response, the better-trained veterans returned fire and blasted open the jail with dynamite. At 2 AM, Cantrell’s men surrendered, the ballot boxes were retrieved, the votes counted, and the opposition was declared the lawful winner of the election. From that day forward, corrupt politicians across the state were put on notice — fair elections would be taking place in Tennessee.

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About the Author: Barry Donegan

Barry Donegan is a singer for the experimental mathcore band Look What I Did, a writer, a self-described "veteran lifer in the counterculture", a political activist/consultant, and a believer in the non-aggression principle.