Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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Robert E. Lee (side-wheel steamer)

(SwStr: t. 900; l. 283'; b. 20'; dph. 13'; dr. 10'; s 9-13.5 k.)

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee was a schooner-rigged, iron-hulled, oscillating-engined paddle-steamer with two stacks, built on the Clyde during the autumn of 1862 as a fast Glasgow-Belfast packet. Alexander Collie & Co., Manchester, acquired her for their blockade-running fleet but were persuaded by renowned blockade-runner Lt. John Wilkinson, CSN, to sell her, as Giraffe, to the Navy Department for the same -32,000 just paid.

Her first voyage, for the Confederate Navy, was into Old Inlet, Wilmington, N.C., in January 1863 with valuable munitions and 26 Scot lithographers, eagerly awaited by the Government bureau of engraving and printing. On 26 January, Union intelligence maintained she "could be captured easily" at anchor in Ossabaw Sound, but this was not to be for another 10 months. Running out again, R. E. Lee started to establish a nearly legendary reputation by leaving astern blockader USS Iroquois. Lt. Richard H. Gayle, CSN, assumed command in May, relieving Lt. John Wilkinson but the latter was conning the ship again out of Cape Fear River from Smithville, N.C., on 7 October 1863, as recounted by Lt. Robert D. Minor, CSN, in a letter to Admiral Franklin Buchanan, 2 February 1864, detailing the first venture to capture USS Michigan and liberate 2,000 Confederate prisoners at Johnson's Island, Sandusky, Ohio (cf. Georgia, Philo Parsons and J. H. Jarvis) : R. E. Lee transported Wilkinson, Minor, Lt. Benjamin P. Loyall and 19 other naval officers to Halifax, N.S., with $35,000 in gold and a cotton cargo "subsequently sold at Halifax for $76,000 (gold) by the War Department-in all some $111,000 in gold, as the sinews of the expedition."

Thus Wilkinson was in Canada and Gayle commanding when Robert E. Lee's luck ran out, 9 November 1863, after 21 voyages in 10 months carrying out over 7,000 bales of cotton, returning with munitions invaluable to the Confederacy. She left Bermuda five hours after her consort, Cornubia (q.v.), only to be run down a few hours after her by the same blockader, USS James Adger. The two runners were conceded to be easily "the most noted that ply between Bermuda and Wilmington."

Robert E. Lee was bought by the U.S. Navy from the Boston prize court for $73,000 in January 1864. On 27 February she was renamed Fort Donelson and served out the war as a blockader.