When a county official wanted a Confederate flag raised on the courthouse lawn in Benton, Ky., he said 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 Commissioner Justin Lamb said on Facebook that he aimed to honor "the lives and service of our brave Marshall County ancestors," according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kentucky's largest newspaper. 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 to the Union side in the Civil War.
The Associated Press reported that Lamb, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the flag is flying in honor of Confederate History Month, which the SCV and similar organizations observe in April. They insist their memorializing represents "heritage, not hate."
Anyway, Howard Graves of the Southern Poverty Law Center wasn't surprised to hear that Lamb eschewed the battle flag, a favorite of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups.
The Montgomery, Ala.,-based SPLC monitors and exposes hate groups and other extremists nationwide. Graves, a senior researcher, said the SPLC doesn't classify the SCV as a hate group.
Nonetheless, the SCV and other "heritage," "paleo-libertarian" 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."
The website adds that the 2015 Emanuel AME church shooting in Charleston rekindled a long-running debate over Confederate flags and monuments in public places. Before avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in the historic house of worship, he posted on a website photos of himself posing with the Confederate battle flag.
Graves hasn't heard of a coordinated effort to substitute the less-well-known "Stars and Bars" for the familiar and controversial battle flag.
But the "Stars and Bars" 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."
Before avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in the historic house of worship, he posted on a website photos of himself posing with the Confederate battle flag.
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."
Says the SPLC website: "The history of the numerous flags of the Confederacy is emblematic of the ways in which neo-Confederates often take a piecemeal approach in their doomed attempts to construct a cogent ideology that is unassailable from the facts of history."
There were two other Confederate flags besides the battle flag and the "Stars and Bars," the Confederacy's first national 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. Pre-war speeches by Confederate leaders, letters written by secession commissioners, and the secession ordinances of multiple Southern states plainly bear this out."
"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 Courier-Journal 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."
"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 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 the Confederacy annexed.
The constitution did ban the importation of slaves, but for economic and political considerations, not for humanitarian reasons. Requiring the purchase of slaves only from internal sources kept slave prices and values high. At the same time, by barring the international trade in slaves, the Confederates hoped to curry favor with the British and French.
In his critically acclaimed book, Apostles of Disunion: Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (University Press of Virginia, 2001), Dew focused on a group of emissaries from Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia who sallied forth in late 1860 and early 1861 to spread secessionism across the South. South Carolina, the first state to secede, invited the other 14 slave states "to join us, in forming a Confederacy of Slaveholding States."
Ten states did, Kentucky not among them.
Without exception, the cotton state men argued that only separation from the free state North would save slavery and, 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 abolitionist ideas 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 an institution by which “a superior race” had transformed “brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers.”
Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was thankful that 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 official documents in which states spelled out why they exited the Union.
When disunionist 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.”
"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery," said Mississippi Confederates. "....We must either submit to degradation and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union."
Kentucky's rebel press played the race card throughout the secession crisis. Although most whites were too poor to own slaves, the white-powers-that-be had always raised the specter of racial equality, telling whites that their skin alone made them superior to African Americans.
"Viewing 'the races' as inexorably different, white Kentuckians believed it was impossible to peacefully coexist with African Americans outside slavery," Marshall wrote. In addition, the poorest whites believed that as long as slavery existed, they wouldn't be on the bottom rung of society.
“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 pandered to less well-heeled whites. "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?”
The rabidly secessionist Herald, published in Paducah, near Benton, said Kentucky had to choose whether "to remain with the abolition North or join the South—to remain a Slave state or abolish slavery.”
Dew explained that after the Confederates lost the war, Davis, Stephens and other 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, a claim picked up and advocated by neo-Confederate writers and partisans of the present day.”
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. To put it quite simply, slavery and race were absolutely critical elements in the coming of the Civil War."
Marshall and Kentucky's other westernmost counties--collectively dubbed "the South Carolina of Kentucky" -- tilted steeply Confederate. But the rest of the state leaned Unionist to one degree or another. (As incongruous as it may seem, most Kentucky citizens were pro-Union and pro-slavery and saw abolitionism and secessionism as equal evils.)
Though Kentucky was one of four border slave states that didn't secede, it is largely viewed as a Southern state today. In her book, Creating a Confederate Kentucky: Civil War Memory in a Border State (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). 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....In a postwar world where racial boundaries were in flux, the Lost Cause and the conservative politics that went with it seemed not only a comforting reminder of a past free of late nineteenth-century insecurities but also as a way to reinforce contemporary efforts to maintain white supremacy."
Even today, Confederate battle flags sometimes fly on private property in Kentucky, even in some of the strongest pro-Union counties. However, 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 Marshall County flag's future is uncertain. Lamb said County Judge-Executive Kevin Neal, also a Republican, agreed to the flag-raising, the Courier-Journalreported. The story also said that neither Lamb nor Neal responded to request for comments.
But Lamb also said he'd like to have a Civil War Union flag displayed above 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 deliberately 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 Trump-Republican-Protestant-evangelical conservative. The president won almost 74 percent of the county vote--more than 11 percent greater than the statewide number.
Nonetheless, not everybody is happy with the flag, which "casts a huge negative perception on our home county!" former sheriff Brian Roy, a Democrat, posted on his Facebook page.
"There is zero logic as to why Judge Neal is allowing this to happen," wrote Roy, who was also a U.S. marshal.
Roy pointed out that the flag is flying above a Civil War era cannon. The ex-lawman has no problem with the antique ordnance. But on Facebook, he added that the flag fosters "negative perceptions and creates divisiveness."
Roy urged, "Judge Neal, Please lower this flag and adopt a written policy for future memorial events that casts a positive light on those who sacrificed for our freedom and that encourages unity and makes ALL of us proud to be Americans!"
Dew, too, is eligible for SCV membership. If anything, he is overly qualified. "My ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy, and my father was named Jack, not John, because of his father's reverence for Stonewall Jackson....My grandmother, whom I loved dearly, was a card-carrying member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy," the historian wrote in the introduction to his book.
Dew said he displayed a Confederate flag in his Virginia boarding school dorm room. Growing up, he added, "I did not think much about secession and the causes of the war back then. My focus was on the battlefield and Lee's valiant men, who had fought so hard and so long before finally yielding to overwhelming numbers. But if anyone had asked me what the war was all about, I had a ready answer for them....The South had seceded for one reason and one reason only: states' rights....It was crystal clear to me that the Southern states had left the Union to defend their just and sovereign rights--rights the North was determined to deny my region and my ancestors. Anyone who thought differently was either deranged or a Yankee, and neither class deserved to be taken seriously on the subject."
Thus, he found Apostles of Disunion painful to write. But he deeply believed that the story of these secession commissioners--based on their own words--"is one that all of us, northerners and southerners, black and white, need to confront as we try to understand our past and move toward a future in which a fuller commitment to decency and racial justice will be part of our shared experience."