The Battle of Athens, Tennessee

On August 1, 1946, a group of Southern World War Two veterans in Athens, Tennessee, fought and won the only successful armed insurrection in the United States since the War of Independence. These brave men embodied that irrepressible Southern spirit, that martial valor and moral sublimity that suffused the souls of Dixie and her children for generations upon generations, stretching backwards in time through the annals of Indo-European civilization — that constitution which we fervently hope has not drained from our blood forevermore. The Battle of Athens stands, then, as a monumental event in the history of Southern, and thus Western, civilization, the fulfillment of an ancestral promise; so, too, does the Battle of Athens represent a call echoing through the ages to fall on modern ears that must not remain deaf — a call to actualize the destiny that our forefathers spilt so much blood, both their own and their enemies’, to leave to us.

Athens is the seat of McMinn County, which, at the time, was the nerve center for Sheriff Paul Cantrell, a major lieutenant of a corrupt Democratic machine which stretched from Tennessee to the District of Columbia. Though we will eschew labeling Cantrell or his machine politics “evil,” as this was simply the way things were done in many American polities, it is worth noting that before and especially during the Second World War, Cantrell presided over corruption and graft on an industrial scale. As Chris DeRose details, the Sheriff drew salaries of nearly sixty thousand dollars per year over his first six years that were worth well over one million dollars in today’s purchasing power. He was also appointed superintendent of the county workhouse for an additional salary of over two thousand dollars; DeRose notes that “McMinn County did not have a workhouse, making its superintending easy.” This at a time when the median Tennessee home was worth less than two thousand dollars and the starting salary for enlisted men was fifty dollars per month. Despite strict rationing, McMinn machine men never wanted for cars, tires, or fuel. Illegal casinos, speakeasies, and whorehouses payed thousands of dollars per month in protection money. Dozens of county employees were listed on the payrolls for the sole purpose of providing cover for a vast money laundering operation.

There were no “elections” in McMinn County through the war years. The ballot boxes were in Democratic offices, and Cantrell’s deputies served as the election officers, some of whom were brutal killers with the blood of innocent civilians on their hands. Other local thugs and felons were on hand to further inculcate the climate of fear, including a man who murdered his own father and, five months after the election, murdered his sister-in-law, an expectant mother, and an infant child. There were about two gunmen for each voter; DeRose further illuminates the chicanery, noting that some voters were temporarily imprisoned to prevent them from voting, while others had their poll tax receipts and eligibility certificates invalidated, “in some cases by the very official who had issued them.” Word was put out among elderly voters that their pensions would be held up unless they voted “the right way.” When the Republican election judge, a disabled veteran of the First World War, attempted to view the ballot count, he was dragged into the corridor and beaten, leaving him paralyzed. Another man who attempted to observe the ballot count was pistol-whipped, and one gunman fired at a poll worker who tried to leave the courthouse.

Several Athenians petitioned the Department of Justice for relief, knowing that local and State officials would not take any action against the machine. A hardware store owner wrote Attorney General Francis Biddle, imploring, “The good people of this county are sacrificing for the cause of America’s freedom but have lost their freedom at home. Both parties have lost the freedom of the ballot box, a dictatorship has been set up, the county treasury is being raided at the expense of the taxpayers, and the good people of this county would like to sell their property and move away. Your department is our last line of defense. Please, for God’s sake come to the rescue of a helpless people.” A minister wrote to Biddle of “a ruthless exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous men who sacrifice public liberties for the sake of private gain . . . nothing has been considered too low if it will enable them to perpetuate themselves in office. Decent citizens feared to bring their wives to the polls, and often felt it unwise to cast their own ballots…It is not possible for a letter to contain information concerning all the subversive and unscrupulous activities that have taken place in this county.”

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The Battle of Athens, Tennessee