Friday, July 31, 2015

Another War for Tennessee's Returning World War II Veterans

It sounds like the plot of a summer action movie: A group of war heroes return from the battlefield to find their idyllic rural community overrun with corruption. After being thwarted in their efforts to peacefully bring about change through the democratic process, they take up arms again and successfully lead a violent revolt against the government on U.S. soil.

It may sound far fetched, but it really isn't: That's what happened on Aug. 1, 1946 during the so-called "McMinn County War," which is also called the "Battle of Athens." Soldiers who had returned to McMinn County after World War II were fed up with what they perceived to be machine-style corruption there, led by political boss Paul Cantrell. When Cantrell ran for election as sheriff in 1946, he was opposed by former GI Knox Henry. Several of Henry's allies ran against Cantrell loyalists for other races on the ballot.

Three ex-servicemen firing at the jail
Athens, Tennessee, 1946
Archives Photograph Collection

About 200 of Cantrell's armed deputies watched the polls on election day, intimidating and in some cases beating people they suspected would vote for the GI slate of candidates. After the polls closed, the deputies spirited the ballot box away to the county jail in Athens. Suspecting voter fraud, the GIs took weapons from the local armory and began firing on the jail. The deputies surrendered to the GIs early the next morning when the GIs began lobbing dynamite at the jail.

Crowd gathered at the jail,
Athens, Tennessee, 1946
Archives Photograph Collection

A governing council was established and a special police force was empaneled to keep order in the community. After the GI candidates were certified as victors in the election, they adopted a number of anti-corruption reforms, including the removal of an incentive system that rewarded deputies based on the number of people they arrested.

H.E. Gunther looking over a pile of smashed slot machines and punch boards which were confiscated by ex-GI forces during raids on gambling houses in Athens, following election mob violence the previous week.
Athens, Tennessee, 1946
Archives Photograph Collection

To learn more about the McMinn County War and other disastrous events in Tennessee's history, visit

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful example of Americanism and the need for the Second Amendment. I wish every household could see this short movie. It gave me chill mumps and inspired my heart..I'm too old, now, to be the leader of such a group, but I sure would walk with, and participate all I could..we are experiencing now in this country, the need for righteous men to walk this walk and 'blast' anyone who wouldn't walk with them!