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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.