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SOUTHERN BELLES NEARLY TRIMMED THEIR TRESSES TO SAVE CONFEDERACY

SHARE SOUTHERN BELLES NEARLY TRIMMED THEIR TRESSES TO SAVE CONFEDERACY

Maybe Southern women ought to rise up and bristle.

After all, this is the place where fate decided that they would keep their hair after all. The place is a Civil War battlefield that, for all its history, is crumbling into the Atlantic Ocean.

I found out about it while I was touring the remains of Fort Fisher, where a battlefield guide leads visitors around rows of high, grassy mounds and talks about bloody fighting that took place 125 years ago this winter.

The battle occurred during the last months of the war, when the Confederacy was desperate enough to consider any idea, no matter how kinky.

According to writer-historian Shelby Foote, a proposal has been made to get the women of the South to cut off their hair for sale in Europe. The hair would be used to make wigs, among other things. Promoters believed there was enough hair growing on the women's heads to bring a $40 million windfall to the cause of the South.

Not surprisingly, most of the women thought it was a good idea. They apparently wanted to lighten up even then. While some Southern men opposed it as an act of disfigurement, the plan had gained widespread approval by the time the war was headed for its fifth spring.

Had the women cut off their hair, it likely would have been shipped out of the country from nearby Wilmington, N.C., the last major Confederate port open to blockade runners.

It was this activity that made Fort Fisher crucial to the South. As long as its guns controlled the waters off this narrow neck of land where the Cape Fear River meets the ocean, blockade runners could smuggle provisions into the South and keep Lee's army supplied. But if the fort fell and the supply line was cut, the end would be only a matter of time.

For more than two years, the South had been building Fort Fisher into the largest and most important earthen fortification in the Confederate States. It extended all the way across the peninsula and then down the beach along the ocean for a mile.

Consisting of high mounds with underground rooms, the fort was defended by 47 guns and mortars. The guns kept federal blockade ships at a distance and assured reasonably safe passage to Confederate vessels bringing in meat, rifles, ammunition, shoes, blankets, coffee, revolvers and cannon.

Without the goods, the war could not be fought. Lee said so himself.

The Yankees launched their first assault on Christmas Eve, 1864. They loaded a ship with 215 tons of powder and exploded it near the fort in hopes of wrecking the earthworks. The floating bomb was so ineffective, however, that many of the Southern defenders slept through the explosion.

They awoke in time to turn back 2,000 sailors and Marines who had been put ashore for an overland assault. When that failed, the Yankees retreated.

They returned on Jan. 12, 1865, with a huge armada of 56 warships with 627 guns. The Yankees pulverized the fort with the heaviest bombardment of the war. Two Southern generals were wounded, one mortally. At 10 p.m. on Jan. 15, the fort was captured in hand-to-hand combat.

Although it is now designated as a state historic site and efforts have been made to restore a palisade fence and protect the remaining mounds, the battlefield is being eroded by the sea at the rate of 10 feet per year.

"We didn't realize how important this place was until it was too late," says a guide, who points out that much of the battleground already has been washed into the ocean.

Luckily, what was not lost was $40 million worth of Southern women's hair.

With the fall of Fort Fisher, the last major port was closed to blockade runners. Thus, there was no way to get such a bulky cargo out and the money back. So the plan was abandoned. It's just as well.

Hairless belles just don't ring true.

William Thomas is a columnist for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.