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Fort Dickerson: Defending Knoxville
On November 4, 1863, Confederate General James Longstreet led two reinforced divisions from Chattanooga to attack Union General Ambrose E. Burnside's garrison at Knoxville. Burnside confronted Longstreet below Knoxville, then withdrew on November 17. Longstreet followed, besieging the city.In Chattanooga, Union General Ulysses S. Grant's army defeated Confederate General Braxton Bragg's forces at the end of the month. Grant ordered General William T. Sherman to reinforce Burnside. Longstreet withdrew on December 4, as Sherman's 25,000 men approached. Sherman soon rejoined Grant.
By late in 1863, the Union Army had turned Knoxville into one of the most fortified cities in the country. Chief Engineer Captain (later General) Orlando M. Poe used civilians and slaves to assist his 300-men engineering battalion, while Union General Ambrose E. Burnside marched south to block Confederate General James Longstreet's approach. On returning, Burnside's men joined in the digging and surrounded the city with 16 forts and batteries, miles of earthworks, and two dams to flood the area just north of Knoxville. Three of the forts--Dickerson, Higley, and Stanley--loomed on the ridges across the Tennessee River.
As Confederate infantry advanced on the river's north side, Longstreet sent 4,000 cavalrymen under General Joseph Wheeler through Maryville and Blount County to capture the heights overlooking the river. General William P. Sanders however, blocked Wheeler with 1,500 Federal cavalrymen, slowing the Confederate advance and allowing Federal troops time to prepare defenses on what was to become Fort Dickerson. Arriving at the base of the heights on the land side, the Confederate cavalry found the slope too steep and the defenders too numerous for a successful attack. After two tentative assaults, they withdrew and rejoined Longstreet.
On November 25, Confederates attacked earthworks on Armstrong Hill, adjoining the site of Fort Higley, driving the Federals from their trenches. Union troops rallied and forced the Confederates back to their original position on Cherokee Heights. A Confederate diversionary attack took place in this area four days later in conjunction with the attack on Fort Sanders. The Confederate defeat in November 1863 was largely due to Poe's design of Knoxville's extensive fortification.