C.M. "Windy" Wise was in a bad mood before Tom Gillespie showed up at the Athens' water works office about 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 1, 1946.
Wise, a deputy sheriff in McMinn County, Tenn., had been posted at the water works, Gillespie's polling place, since 9 a.m. From all the hard looks and tight smiles shot his way, he could tell the vote wasn't going his way. His benefactor, Sheriff Pat Mansfield, who was part of the statewide Democratic Machine controlled by former congressman and Memphis mayor Edward Hull Crump, was losing. So Windy would lose his job too.
Deputies didn't receive a salary as such, but were paid per arrest. So they made lots of arrests. They boarded buses and trains passing through town and booked sleeping passengers for drunkenness. Veterans returning from World War II were also good marks. About 10 percent of McGinn County had gone off to war. So the streets of Athens were full of uniformed young men, flush with mustering-out pay. They didn't have ATMs back then, but the idea was the same.
You could also make money not making arrests. Like an old-time privateer flying under cover of officialdom, you could keep what you stole from roadhouses and vice lords. It was good to be a deputy. Most of them drove fine cars, which the people of McMinn County noticed and resented.
Gillespie didn't have a car. He rode his horse into town.
A contemporaneous account in the Chattanooga Daily Times doesn't mention Gillespie's name; he is "the Negro" in the story. He was a farmer, 53 years old with a fourth-grade education, a ballot, a poll tax receipt, and no intention of voting Wise's way. So the deputy stepped over to him and said he was in the wrong precinct.
"I've always voted here before," Gillespie said.
"Nigger, you can't vote here today!"
Wise hit him with brass knuckles. Shoved him. Gillespie leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest. Not going anywhere. Wise whipped out a pistol. It went off as Gillespie tried to run.
Only a flesh wound in the back, but as he was hustled off "for treatment" at the county jail, the rumor spread that Gillespie had been killed. A crowd gathered. The sheriff ordered the water works closed and posted four deputies outside the building.
Wise and another deputy stayed inside the water works, holding poll watchers Ed Vestal, Charles Scott and J.P. "Gobo" Cartwright hostage. They were all World War II veterans, part of the GI Non-Partisan League, a group that pledged to return its home county to democratic rule.
(There was a similar GI revolt in Arkansas in 1946, centered mainly in Garland County, where future governor Sid McMath organized fellow veterans against Hot Springs Mayor Leo P. McLaughlin and his cronies. You can read about this in David Hill's book "The Vapors." And there's a just-published book by Chris DeRose, "The Fighting Bunch," that tells this story in detail.)
The GI Non-Partisan League had put up a slate of candidates to run against Mansfield and Cantrell and other members of the Crump machine. Theirs was a non-ideological party that made only one promise: Your vote will be counted as cast.
With the GIs winning, the deputies' only chance was to stop the voting and carry the ballot boxes off to the jail where they could count (and jigger) the votes. The mob outside the water works jeered at the armed guards. Vestal and Scott threw themselves through the windows and scrambled, bleeding, to safety. Wise stepped out behind them, brandishing his pistol.
"Let's go get our guns," somebody said.
But the GIs just dispersed to their party headquarters at a service station a few blocks away. Meanwhile, the water works ballot box was transported to the jail. Things might have worked out differently had Sheriff Mansfield not sent two deputies to the GI headquarters to arrest the ringleaders. After those deputies were immediately disarmed and held captive, Mansfield sent two more men, who were also captured.
Finally he sent three more deputies, who arrived with guns drawn. Townsfolk quickly overwhelmed them and turned them over to the GIs, who had no clear idea what to do with them. There was some lynching talk.
But no one was up for murder, so the GIs drove the captives out of town and chained them to trees. Meanwhile, other deputies had collected all the ballot boxes and moved them to the jail. By 6 p.m., it appeared they had control of the election, and their future.
Bill White, who'd fought with the Marines at Guadalcanal as a teenage sergeant, and a few other GIs headed to the National Guard Armory. In 2000, White told Kurt Pehler and Brandi Wilson of the University of Tennessee how they took the keys from the officer in charge of the armory, "busted in . . . and got 68 30.06 rifles . . . Thompson sub-machine guns, and all the ammunition we could carry."
By 9 p.m., heavily armed GIs surrounded the McMinn County Jail, where Mansfield, Cantrell and other members of the election commission, protected by about 50 deputies, prepared to certify their version of the election. As townspeople gathered to watch, White called out: "Would you damn bastards bring those damn ballot boxes out here or are we going to set siege against the jail and blow it down?"
Siege it was. White said he fired first, wounding a deputy and setting off an exchange of automatic weapons fire and shotgun blasts. The jail walls were brick and the deputies were safe, even as the GIs starting lobbing Molotov cocktails at the building.
Then, around 2:30 a.m., someone arrived with dynamite. About the same time, an ambulance pulled up to the jail; the GIs allowed it in to evacuate the wounded. It sped off a few moments later, but it wasn't headed for the hospital. It spirited Mansfield safely out of town.
A bundle of dynamite rolled under the chief deputy's fine car. Another went under Mansfield's car, another on the roof of the jail's porch. Another bounced off the jail wall. The explosions flipped the cars, knocked the porch off its foundations, and gave the deputies pause.
They slunk out of the jail to hand over the ballot boxes to the GIs. The townspeople set upon them, slashing one's throat, and shooting another in the jaw. Windy Wise was beaten and kicked. The GIs probably saved their lives.
Every vote was counted. The GI candidates for state senator, sheriff, circuit court clerk and registrar of deeds all won handily. Cantrell conceded the election. Mansfield resigned as sheriff and left McMinn County, never to return. The deputies mostly ran off, though some were jailed for a while.
But nobody, save for Wise, who'd spend a year in prison for the attempted murder of Gillespie, was ever prosecuted for a crime related to what came to be known as "the Battle of Athens."
The GIs kept profit-based policing for the next four years. In early 1947, the GI Non-Partisan League disbanded, admitting its failure in an open letter: "We abolished one machine only to replace it with another and more powerful one in the making."
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.