When a county official wanted a Confederate flag raised over the courthouse in Benton, Ky., he opted for the "Stars and Bars"  to sidestep "the negativity associated with the 'Battle Flag' and its common 'Southern Cross" design.'"

Republican Marshall County County Commissioner Justin Lamb said on Facebook that he aimed to honor "the lives and service of our brave Marshall County ancestors." He meant Confederate soldiers.

Benton is the seat of Marshall County, one of the few Kentucky counties that furnished more men to the Confederacy than the Union side in America's most lethal conflict.

Lamb, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the flag is for  Confederate History Month, which his group observes in April.

Howard Graves of the Southern Poverty Law Center wasn't particularly surprised to hear that Lamb eschewed the battle flag, a favorite of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups.

Though the SUV glorifies the Confederacy, members insist their reverence for the flag and other Confederare iconography represents "heritage, not hate."

Graves, a senior researcher, said the SPLC doesn't classifies the SCV as a hate group. But it and other "heritage" and "constitutional" organizations have "strong neo-Confederate principles and choose to spend their time and money valorizing the darker parts of our history," according to the SPLC website. "Yet in their effort to gloss over the legacy of slavery in the South, these groups strengthen the appeal of Lost Cause mythology, opening the door for violent incidents spurred by the rhetoric of cynical individuals and groups like the League [of the South] and Identity Dixie."

Graves hasn't heard of any coordinate effort to substitute the less-well-known "Stars and Bars" for the familiar and controversial battle flag.

But the "Stars and Bars" flying at the Marshall County courthouse "is consistent with broader trends within the neo-Confederacy. When there is a strong public reaction to public displays of Lost Cause mythology, these groups tend to try to use other symbols of the Confederacy."

Groups like the SCV "will make a big fuss about the Confederate battle flag as the soldiers' flag," Graves said.  "But they are acutely aware that there are different flags at their disposal." 

There were two other official Confederate flags besides the "Stars and Bars" and the battle flag. A "Second National Flag" -- the "Stainless Banner" -- was white with the battle flag in its upper left corner. A "Third National Flag" -- the "Blood-stained Banner" -- looked the same except that it had a red bar on the end away from the flagpole.

All the flags stood for slavery and white supremacy, said Graves. The designer of the "Stainless Banner" made no bones about what he wanted the flag's hue to represent:  a people "fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race."

"The Stars and Bars workaround seems to be a way of diffusing public controversy by not displaying the more recognizable battle flag, which is so closely related with the Lost Cause and white supremacy," said Kentucky-born Anne E. Marshall, an author and history professor at Mississippi State University. 

She said the Confederacy "despite all post-Civil War assertions to the contrary, was born out of a goal to preserve the rights of white southerners to hold slaves." 

"The Stars and Bars is just a more subtle way of waving the St. Andrew's Cross battle flag--a clever ruse that should be called out for what it is, yet another celebration of slavery and the racial order we Southerners built using that institution as the foundation," said Williams College author and historian Charles B. Dew, a Florida native.

Lamb told the Louisville Courier-Journal, the state's largest newspaper, that "slavery was a horrible stain on our nation's history, but the average Confederate soldier did not fight for slavery. They fought for the cause of states' rights." 

The Louisville paper identified Lamb as "a local historian." 

"No respectable historian gives the state's rights fig leaf any credence any more, no matter what the SCV wants to believe," Dew said. The Confederacy "was launched as a slave-based republic, where white men would rule and slaves would do forced labor, forever--slavery was put beyond the reach of constitutional change in perpetuity." 

The Confederate constitution specifically prohibited the Confederate Congress from taking any action "impairing the right of property in negro slaves." Citizens could take their slaves into any Confederate state "and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired." Too, the charter guaranteed slavery in any territory added to the Confederacy.

The constitution did ban the importation of slaves, but for economic, not humanitarian, reasons. Forcing citizens to buy slaves only from internal sources kept slave prices and values high.

In his critically acclaimed book, Apostles of Disunion, Dew set out to debunk the neo-Confederate notion that that slavery was not the main cause of America's most lethal conflict.  

He focused on a group of commissioners from the Deep Soutb who journeyed to the upper South and border states to tout secession. South Carolina, the first state to secede, invited the other 14 slave states to join us, in forming a "to join, us in forming a great slaveholding confederacy." Ten states did, Kentucky not among them.

Without exception, the cotton state emissaries argued that only separation from the free state North would save slavery and, as as a Kentucky-born Alabama commissioner to his native state put it, guarantee "the heaven-ordained superiority of the white over the black race." 

Said another commissioner: “Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political or social equality."

A commissioner, too, said abollitionist notions that slavery was immoral and that God created all people equal were rooted in “an infidel theory [that] has corrupted the Northern heart.”

Dew quoted Confederate President Jefferson Davis who praised human bondage as a worthy institution by which “a superior race” had transformed “brutal savages into docile, intelligent and civilized agricultural laborers.” 

Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was thankful the Confederacy was based “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

In addition, Dew also cited secession ordinances in which Southern states spelled out why they exited the Union. When Texans pulled out, they denounced “the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race and color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law.”

Throughout the secession crisis, Kentucky's rebel press never missed a chance to play the race card, too. Editors tepeatedly raised the spectre of black equality with whites. 

“If the North shall succeed in their effort to conquer the Slave States, whatever else may happen, it is absolutely certain that slavery will be exterminated,” said the Louisville Courier, Kentucky's leading Confederate paper.

The Courier pointedly appealed to less well-heeled whites who were too poor to own slaves. “Have the non-slaveholders of Kentucky ever thought of the consequences of the success of this policy?  Have they ever thought of the effect of the emancipation of all the slaves in the country? Do they wish to send their children to schools in which the negro children of the vicinity are taught?” 

Rapid-fire, the questions continued: “Do they wish to give the negro the right to appear in the witness box to testify against them? Do they wish to see the negro privileged to serve on juries sitting on their property, liberty, or life? Do they wish to be met at the polls, and have their votes neutralized, by the suffrage of the freed negroes? Do they wish to have the emancipated slave brought into competition with them in the field, in the workshop, in all the pursuits of life?” 

Dew explained that after the Confederates lost the war, many of their civilian and military leaders wrote their memoirs, in which they maintained “that slavery had absolutely nothing to do with the South’s drive for independence.”

Dew concluded, “By illuminating so clearly the racial content of the secession persuasion, the commissioners would seem to have laid to rest, once and for all, any notion that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War.”

While Marshall and Kentucky's other westermost counties--collectively dubbed "the South Carolina of Kentucky" -- tilted steeply Confederate, the rest of the state leaned Unionist to one degree or another. (As incongrous as it may seem, most Kentucky citizens were pro-Union and pro-slavery and saw abolitionism and secessionism as equal evils.)

In her book, Creating a Confederate Kentucky: Civil War Memory in a Border State,  Marshall explained that that the Bluegrass State became intensely southern after America's most lethal conflict. "The conservative racial, social, political, and gender values inherent in Confederate symbols and the Lost Cause greatly appealed to many white Kentuckians."

Even today, Confederate battle flags flag on private property almost everywhere in Kentucky. Benton is evidently the only place where a Confederate flag is atop a courthouse pole.

"There simply is no historically accurate way to celebrate the Confederacy without also celebrating slavery as the cause for which it was formed," Marshall said.

"The Stars and Bars has a place--in a museum, above the iconic image of the kneeling slave and the banner that asks 'Am I not a Man, and a Brother?'" Dew said.

The flag's future is uncertain. Neither Lamb nor County Judge-Executive Kevin Neal, also a Republican, replied to the Courier Journal's requests for a comment. 

But Lamb also said he'd like to have a Civil War-Union flag displayed anove the Confederate flag because some Marshall County men fought for the Union.

Graves said flying both flags would be an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. "The Confederacy was antithetical and deliberatly so to the values the Union was trying to uphold," he said. "We've seen different iterations of this juggling act."

He said some white supremacist groups at Charlottesville carried flags that combined the Stars and Stripes and the Confederate battle flag. 

 Marshall County is nearly 98 percent white and Bible-Belt, Trump-Republican conservative. The president won almost 74 percednt of the county vote--more than 11 percent greater than the statewide percentage.

Nonetheless, not everybody is happy with the flag. Longtime former sheriff Brian Roy, a Democrat, posted on Facebook that "the Confederate flag's presence outside the Marshall County courthouse "casts a huge negative perception on our home county!"