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The Battle of Athens (Tennessee)

Rambling Beach Cat – by Nick Nafpliotis

When I threw my two cents into the gun control debate a few weeks ago, I smugly pointed out that people who thought they were going to be action hero freedom fighters because of the second amendment (and their gun collections) were acting like idiots. I went on to say that there will never be a scenario in the modern era when a few armed citizens will ever successfully rise up against any part of the American government.

That’s when a friend of mine who is pro-gun (and also a lot smarter than me) said that I wasn’t entirely correct…and that I should do some research into The Battle of Athens. What follows is the result of that journey, which helped me to learn about an incredible  and little known story from America’s history. 

It also doesn’t help my stance on gun control one bit. But rather than shouting and calling each other commies and rednecks, we need to look at both sides of this issue if we’re ever going to resolve it. 

And no matter which side of the debate you’re on, this story is pretty awesome.

In 1936, the sleepy little town of Athens, Tennessee was rocked by a bit of a political scandal. A man by the name of Paul Cantrell, who came from a family with lots of money and political connections, ran for and won the position of sheriff.

Citizens in McMinn County, where Athens is located, immediately suspected that the vote had been tampered with. Cantrell went about proving these allegations in standard corrupt politician fashion. A few of sleazy his actions included:

-Working with a friend of his in the state legislature to drastically redistrict McMinn County so that all opposition to him would be silenced.

-Making sure that during the next five election cycles (all of which Cantrell or one of his allies won), ballots were counted in secret by his men at the county jail.

-Refusing to adopt voting machines and insisting on hand counting ballots for the sake of “saving the county money.”

-Making sure that his deputy, Pat Mansfield, was elected to the position of sheriff in 1942 and 1944 while he was elected to that state legislature.

Even Boss Hogg would have considered Cantrell to be a walking cliche.

Perhaps worst of all, however, was the way that he and his police department created extra income for themselves. The sheriff and his deputies got a kickback fee for every arrest that they made; all that was required to make it legal was a signature from the sheriff…which is pretty much a perfect recipe for corruption.

Sure enough, Cantrell and his men went to extreme measures to make sure that there was a steady flow of arrests (and subsequent fines for those being arrested) made by his department. They even went so far as to board buses that were passing through town, arrest everyone on board for “drunkenness”, and then charged them a fee to be released from jail.

And while they weren’t doing their job as the town’s police (going after actual criminals and stuff), they also colluded with bootleggers and allowed criminal activity in the town to go unchecked. This essentially turned Athens into a weird sort of lawless police state for the regular, law-abiding citizens.

Cantrell’s scheme of arresting people for profit worked pretty well for a while…until all the military vets from America’s greatest generation, who had been fighting in World War II, began arriving back home after the war ended. As you might imagine, soldiers returning from the battlefield didn’t appreciate getting harassed, beaten up, arrested, and fined whenever they go out to have a beer together.

Pictured: People you should buy a drink.
Not Pictured: People you should mess with at a bar.

Why Cantrell thought it was a good idea to mess with men that had just returned from heavy combat is beyond comprehension. When you also combine that with the rebellious spirit that was already infused into McCinn County’s DNA (they sided with the Union during the Civil War), it looked like a confrontation was inevitable…

…but not before the G.I.’s tried to do things the way they had been fighting overseas to protect: Through democracy. The vets got together and created a slate of candidates to oppose Cantrell (who had returned to McMinn County run for Sheriff while Mansfield ran for the state senate) and his cronies during the 1946 election.

But on election day of that year, the trouble started almost immediately. Cantrell had placed a army of hired guards at all the voting precincts. Poll watchers appointed by the G.I. group were arrested and held without cause while observing and trying to point out numerous voting irregularities.

Things got even worse when an elderly black farmer named Tom Gillespie step into a precinct to cast his vote and was accosted by one of Cantrell’s men, who growled “You can’t vote here, nigger.” He followed up that lovely greeting by beating Gillespie with a set of brass knuckles and shooting him as he attempted to flee out the door.

The G.I.’s had had enough. They stormed one of the locations where two their fellow veterans/poll watchers were being held captive and busted them out. When Cantrell’s men attempted to storm the veteran’s election headquarters to make arrests, they ended up getting the crap beaten out of them and tied to trees ten miles outside of town.

But as badly as things looked like they were going for Cantrell, he still had the (stolen) election well in hand. He began closing precincts early, citing the recent violence, and got his men to transport the ballot boxes to the county jail to be (mis)counted in secret.

That’s when Bill White, a sergeant who had fought in the Pacific theater, snapped…and gave one of the most badass (yet incredibly short) speeches ever. Surrounded by fellow soldiers, he barked:

You call yourselves GIs?!

You go over there and fight for three and four years…you come back and you let a bunch of draft dodgers who stayed here where it was safe, and you were making it safe for them, push you around?

If you people don’t stop this, and now is the time and place, you people wouldn’t make a pimple on a fighting GI’s ass. Get guns…

 Pictured: Bill White’s testicles

White and a few other men raided the National Guard armory, armed themselves along with several other fellow veterans, and marched down to the county jailhouse.

At around 9:00 PM that evening, the G.I.s surrounded the building where Cantrell, Sheriff Mansfield, and George Woods (a member of the election commission who was there to help certify the results), were barricaded inside.

“Would you damn bastards bring those damn ballot boxes out here, or we are going to set siege against the jail and blow it down?!” White bellowed. When no answer came, White and his men responded with a barrage of gunfire.

A few of Cantrell’s deputies were wounded while the rest fled back inside. The G.I.’s were successfully able to keep Cantrell and his men penned down, while George Woods snuck out and and slipped out of town, meaning that the election could not be (falsely verified).

Unfortunately, the arms fire proved ineffective at penetrating the jail’s outer wall. At 2:30 AM the next morning, however, White’s crew was able to obtain a healthy supply of dynamite.

But before they could launch their final attack, an ambulance pulled up to the back entrance of the jail. Figuring that it was there to evacuate those in need of medical assistance…and being honorable men…the G.I.’s let the vehicle gather its passengers and leave.

Little did they know that the only two people loaded into the the ambulance were Paul Cantrell and Pat Mansfield, whose only injuries were to their pride and a possible loss of bladder control.

“Curse them Duke boys!”

The deputies and hired guns inside, however, were not so lucky. The G.I.s easily breached the jail, where Cantrell’s men surrendered without a fight…on their side at least. While most of them were simply held prisoner overnight, a few (particularly those that had physically harmed the G.I.s and the man who shot Tom Gillespie) received a vicious beat down that very nearly killed them.

A few days later, Henry Knox, who had been the G.I. candidate, was sworn in as the town’s sheriff…which was only fair since he won the vote by a huge margin. George Woods was even brought back into town under the G.I.’s protection to verify the results.

The other G.I. candidates (who had also won their elections) began returning many of the excess fees that Cantrell’s regime had illegally imposed upon Athens’ citizens.

And despite some tensions at first, things actually returned to normal in the tiny town where the rebellion had occurred. Cantrell and Mansfield went back into the private sector (away from Athens, of course) and the only charges ever brought were against Tom Gillespie’s shooter. There were also no casualties on either side as a result of the Athens uprising, which is pretty impressive (and highly unusual) for an armed rebellion.

Great story…so what does it all mean for the gun control debate?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. We can’t have armed rebellion every time we disagree with local government; otherwise the entire country would be in absolutely anarchy.

There’s also a big difference between well trained soldiers operating guns and an individual stockpiling weapons for his or her own personal armageddon…hence the “well regulated militia” part of the second amendment.

But since situations like what happened in Athens can still happen today…and some heavily populated areas have almost no police protection at all…gun control advocates (like myself) shouldn’t always be so quick to dismiss the argument some folks earnestly make about arming themselves for protection.

I still feel that guns need to be strictly regulated (and that being able to own and operate a firearm should be a bit more difficult to obtain than a driver’s license), but this is a complicated issue that won’t go away until both sides can agree that realizations and concessions need to be made in both directions.

One thing I think we can all agree on, however, is that Bill White and his crew are one group that we were very luck to have defending our freedoms, both abroad and at home.

  And this photo caption might be the only
 instance where the phrase “lick politicians” isn’t gross.

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17 Responses to The Battle of Athens (Tennessee)

  1. CXJ says:

    Nick, the only thing I agree with you on is that people must get certified on the firearm that a person wishes to purchase. He or she would have 90 days after the purchase to go to a firing range to get certified on a particular weapon or weapons. If he or she fails to become certified within the 90 days they are fined $200 per weapon per month until they get certified.

    This is not a licensing of firearms it merely is a certification that Joe Blow knows which end of the gun is for business and learn how to safely use the weapon.

    The same should hold true for automobiles. There shouldn’t be a licensing, but only a certification that the operator knows how to safely and proficiently drive the vehicle. Driving is not a privilege any more then owning a firearms is not a privilege, both are rights. Driving a car is an extension of our legs and guns are an extension of our fist.

    Secular governments in the 20th century murdered 250,000,000 people after they all force the abolition of firearms. It took religions 2000 years to kill that many people in the name of God. The fascist and communist tyrants make the church fathers look like amateurs!

    By the way, your version of the Sheriff vs. the GIs is quite different then the actual event. Good day……

    Good day.

    • Henry Shivley says:

      What part of “unalienable” and “shall not infringe” do you not understand? No one of us or group of us can set any condition on another’s 2nd Amendment right.
      I would agree that training should be available as a voluntary option, but if we are to truly be free, none of us tells the other how to conduct themselves under the assumption of what might happen. The path to destruction is always wide and righteous at it’s entry but quickly narrows to a cliff with no turn around spot.
      I know this is a gun safety issue but I am here to tell you I will not trade any liberty for any safety. If someone buys a gun and screws up, they are accountable for their actions. But to tell my fellow Americans how they should conduct themselves according to my standards of thought and impose a penalty if they do not would be hypocritical. I have to believe that most who would purchase a gun would be smart enough to ask someone to show them how to use it, simply to keep from hurting themselves. If not, when they screw up, they pay. But I am not into punishing people for hypothetical what-might-happens.
      Those who would trade liberty for safety deserve neither and will have neither.

      • chris says:

        He who gives up freedom for safety deserves neither.

      • CXJ says:

        Henry, certification is not infringing it is merely insuring the everyone has had the chance to learn about the firearm they own. I own a ranch in New Mexico. It is open to shooting enthusiast to shoot until their heart is content.

        More often then not most of the individuals have little or no firearms skills. They are dangerous to those around them and they are dangerous to themselves. I have intervened on countless occasions to impose a few shooting procedures and safety rules. So far nobody has shot themselves or anyone else, but I may have averted a bullet wound or two.

        Certification can not keep a citizen from owning a firearm it simply helps make gun owners more responsible and safer. What’s wrong with that?

        The licensing of firearms is not an option and I am not advocating licensing.

        Certification by definition is not infringing on our right to keep and bear arms.

        Do you advocate allowing people to drive a car without having no certification? Should they not demonstrate the basic rules and possess some skill to drive a car? Would go under the knife of a uncertified neurosurgeon?
        I do not agree with the issuance of a driver’s license. I merely believe its prudent that the new driver knows what the hell they are doing. A 4000 lb automobile traveling at a velocity of 60 mph is equal to the force of 75mm artillery shell.

        Its no different with a firearm. Is training and certification going to guarantee that nobody will get hurt by a firearm and the answer is an obvious no and the same answer pertains to driver’s ed.

        The rest of the gun laws past and present are infringing on the our rights as American citizens to keep and bear arms, but making it a law to take a gun safety course within 90 days after the purchase is reasonable and not unconstitutional.

        I have often argued that right along with driver’s ed high school students should participate in firearms training. I am not implying that they can’t possess a firearm before the training; I am just saying they should get firearm training.

        I realize that Big Brother has his nose stuck into everyone’s day to day business and the atmosphere of resistance to any government involvement in our lives is the strongest that I have ever witnessed and I am 65 so I clearly understand why people are uptight about firearm certification. The certification should not be a federal requirement/law, but by locale.

        • diggerdan says:

          CXJ: It is for people with your attitude why I posted that article below called “Slavery by Consent – Understanding the Human Farm”! You should watch it and learn something.

    • diggerdan says:

      Sounds like you are another control freak CXJ talking that way in the land of the free and the home of the brave – certified, BS!. To me when you get certified means just a nice way of saying you are controled and here in america we are not to be controled because we are free and DO NOT OR SHOULD NOT HAVE TO BE LICENCED OR CERTIFIED!! GO AHEAD AND GET YOU F`N BADGE OF APRUVAL AND GET CERTIFIED AND WEAR YOUR BADGE. You are a sheeple in my books talkin` that way you dumb ass.

      • CXJ says:

        diggerdan, you have no idea who you are talking to or what kind of person I am.

        I am putting my life on the life to defend the right of the American people to own any weapon that the U.S. Army and/or government has in its arsenal. I might even be including WMD’s. Does that sound like I am a sheeple?! If you still think so then you are damned fool.

        The FBI recently entered my home while I was away and rifled my personal affects without a search warrant because I am out spoken about the unconstitutional violations this rogue government has perpetrated on the American People.

        When the shootings starts I am the kind of guy you want on your side. Does .50 Cal. Barrett and a 24″ target 1 mile away mean anything to you?

        “This is the land of the free because of the brave.”

        If I am wrong about certification then I am wrong, but I have not read one convincing argument that firearm training shouldn’t be mandatory. You guys should be celebrating that local governments would want you guys to have guns and operate them properly.

        My apologies for offending my fellow patriots and to you as well diggerdan.

        Good day

        • diggerdan says:

          CXJ Unless you are a F`n fed. you have no idea who you are talking to Bud! I do not have to be certified or trained to know what is right or not riight. By the way pal the PTB broke both my legs and sent me away for a lot of years for not ratting out my Bro`s. You bow down against them bastards and you deserve everything they give you!! WE are FREE and WE DO NOT NEED NO PUNK ASSED JERK SUPPORTING SOME GOVT. AGENCY TELLIN` US WE NEED TO BE LICENCED OR CERTIFIED FOR ANYTHING, PERIOD!!!!—————P.S. By the way CXJ we people here are the brave to stand up against the PTB and it is the brave that make us all free – and there are a lot out there that are not free and are still sleeping – and we will not be truely free if we have to be certified or licenced or rfid chipped or censored or anything on that rout if you get my drift.

          • CXJ says:

            Yes diggerdan I do get your drift and we are not that far apart though you may believe otherwise. And perhaps I am wrong about the certification, but we do still have a first amendment do we not? Prior to the murder of JFK I used to write up orders for artillery pieces and the ammunition. The gun shop owner would place the actual order.

            I must admit I never heard of uncertified cannoneer farmer Jones blasting farmer Smith’s barn to smithereens with his new 75mm field piece. Maybe you have a point. We really were free in those days… Good day.

        • Henry Shivley says:

          I would not cast any aspersions on your status as a patriot and I am glad you and your .50 cal will be shooting for our team. But when I say there can be no mandatory certification, that is not my opinion, that is absolute law.
          The word “unalienable” means inalienable: incapable of being repudiated or transferred to another; Unable to be taken away from or given away by the possessor. Infringement means violation: an act that disregards an agreement or a right.
          No one of us or group of us can place any condition whatsoever on any individual right. Liberty can be a little dangerous, but how much more dangerous without it?
          As for the automobile argument, I can find no reference to it in our Bill of Rights.
          Peace, brother. 🙂

          • CXJ says:

            Henry, My apology I stand corrected.

            Your statement: Liberty can be a little dangerous , but how much more dangerous without it. Those words shot my argument all to hell.

            It’s been a while since I ate some crow… 🙂

  2. Shields says:

    Screw Nick.

    Nuff said.

  3. marie says:

    People boast about having a permit or license to carry concealed, but doesn’t that action – requesting permission to act – denote just who is the slave and who is the master?

  4. pete says:

    i think gun sellers should be obliged to walk the buyer though the basics of the weapon.

    the safety, the mag-release, clearing a jam etc.
    that’s enough really.

    i think there needs to be very strict sales controls on muzzle-loaders and derringers.
    both those “weapons” are very dangerous to the user – possibly more than any target even.
    people who own them must COMPLETELY understand how to use them.

  5. oldvet says:

    I Don’t feel this should be govt. required….it should be left up to the industry. Manufactures could sponsor a small training program for dealers to use…much like a mini-hunter safety course and it could be implemented at the time of sale or anytime prior. IT SHOULD BE A COMPLETELY VOLUNTARY program offered up as a way to educated the new gun owner……..not required but voluntary,…..and offered free of charge by the dealer. Incentives like 10% off ammo purchases for taking the course would go along way in keeping good relation with the new customers. It would certainly help boost sales I would think.

    Anyways,..all this may be a moot point here very shortly……lets see what these 19 EO’s are going to declare

  6. diggerdan says:

    @ oldvet 6:04am. Yep, I agree fully with ya oldvet. It all should be voluntary.

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