The Union army was determined to secure the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, to block the East Tennessee and Georgia railroad, which linked the Confederacy east and west. On 2 September 1863, Major General Ambrose Burnside sent Union forces into Knoxville, adding to the besieged Federal forces already there. Much to his surprise, many citizens of Knoxville saw Burnside’s army as liberators from Confederate control and greeted them with enthusiasm. Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet was despatched to Knoxville to advance against Burnside and retake the city. Longstreet objected to this tactic, as he knew his men would be outnumbered. After a slow and difficult journey by railroad, they arrived at Knoxville on 12 November, unprepared for the winter weather. Burnside had used his time to make Knoxville the most fortified city after Washington DC. When Longside finally lay siege to Knoxville, his men failed to penetrate the icy ditch surrounding Fort Sanders.
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